Preserving Princeton’s ’emerald necklace’

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Princeton proposes to purchase Lanwin tract despite corporation’s pending application to subdivide the property into 29 single-family lots 

Princeton officials have submitted a $1.6 million grant application to Mercer County toward a proposed purchase of the 90-acre Lanwin Tract on Herrontown Road.

The Princeton Council authorized the submission of the grant application at a meeting in May.

The town is seeking the money from the Mercer County Open Space Assistance program toward an “as-yet-undetermined” purchase price to buy the land on the ecologically sensitive Princeton Ridge. It is under negotiation, officials said.

The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres program has already approved $2.5 million for use by the town and its nonprofit partners to buy the property, according to a May 15 memorandum to the Princeton Council from Cindy Taylor, Princeton’s open space manager.

The Lanwin Tract is bordered by Herrontown Road, Herrontown Lane, Mount Lucas Road and Montgomery Township. It is near the municipally-owned Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation parks, officials said.

The Lanwin Development Corp. has applied for site plan approval to subdivide the property into 29 single-family lots that average one-half acre. The remaining 67 acres would be preserved as open space.

The Princeton Planning Board considered an application at its July 6 meeting, despite the potential purchase of the property. It would be the latest in a series of public hearings on the application dating to 2019.

The pending application is the most recent in a series of proposed developments for the property, none of which have been approved by the Planning Board.

Previous applications have included luxury housing developments, a country club, light industry, a shopping center and an elementary school, according to Anne Matthews, who lives on Herrontown Lane.

The property contains exceptional freshwater wetlands, mature deciduous forest and areas that were previously cleared for the farmland, according to the grant funding resolution.

The Friends of Princeton Open Space (FOPOS) favors preserving the Lanwin Tract, which contains a significant amount of forest. It opposes the fragmentation of forests for development.

“The more we learn about forests, the more we realize that fragmenting them – even for limited development – is extremely destructive,” said Wendy Mager, president of FOPOS.

The FOPOS sees the preservation of the 90-acre parcel as part of the town’s “emerald necklace,” which links preserved open spaces in the town, Mager said.

Preserving the Lanwin Tract is a “critical extension of our efforts,” Mager said. She pointed to the conservation easement on the lands of the Institute for Advanced Study and the protection of the greater Mountain Lakes Natural Area.

“We are fully committed to this effort to secure the many environmental benefits of our old forests for future generations, and for the birds and animals with whom we share the planet,” Mager said.

Matthews said that as climate change accelerates, preserving the Lanwin Tract becomes crucial. It is adjacent to the Herrontown Woods and Autumn Hill Reservation preserve properties to form the last great forest in Princeton, she said.

“Develop Lanwin, and all three green spaces are forever fragmented and degraded. Ecologically, they are one unit and should be preserved as such for the health and enjoyment of all Princeton residents,” Matthews said.

The 90-acre Lanwin Tract and adjacent lands to the south were also part of New Jersey’s first orphanage, Matthews said. It was founded by Princeton reformers and abolitionists in 1842 and chartered by the State Legislature in 1845, she said.

The Mount Lucas Orphans and Guardians Institute was the first one in the United States to shelter children of all genders and races, Matthews said. She commissioned a full chain of title study to trace the earlier ownership of the Lanwin Tract and neighboring properties.

In testimony on a previous Planning Board application for the site on Oct. 10, 2019, consultant Randy Kertes, who represented Lanwin Development Corp., testified that his research revealed that the orphanage and the subsequent Princeton Township “poor house” were nearby, but not on the Lanwin Development Corp. property.

The former Princeton Township acquired the land in 1866 after the orphanage closed, Kertes said. The poor house was created for the indigent poor, the elderly and the physically and mentally disabled, he said.

The poor house also sheltered unwed mothers and their children, according to Kertes’ testimony.