‘Change is inevitable’

Planning Board adopts 2023 Community Master Plan

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Despite calls for a “pause” in the process, Princeton’s proposed 2023 Community Master Plan has been approved.

The Planning Board unanimously approved the plan at a public hearing Nov. 30. The five-and-a-half hour meeting was a continuation of the Planning Board’s public hearing on the Master Plan that lasted four hours Nov. 9.

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The 2023 Community Master Plan replaces the 1996 Community Master Plan. It was developed after 18 months of public outreach that included numerous surveys and listening sessions.

State law requires a municipality to adopt a Master Plan and to update it periodically. The Master Plan sets out a town’s vision for itself. The land use or zoning ordinance, which is adopted by the municipal governing body, implements it.

At both public hearings, some residents called on the Planning Board to hold off on adopting it. They said the 237-page Master Plan, plus its 166-page appendix, was released Oct. 30 and did not allow residents enough time to study it.

But the Planning Board opted to plunge ahead and take action. It was pointed out that the draft version of the Community Master Plan was released 10 days in advance of the Nov. 9 public hearing, in accordance with state law.

One of the main objections to the Master Plan was the perceived increase in density, but Planning Director Justin Lesko said the land use map in the draft plan is consistent with the densities that exist now.

Some of the confusion over density resulted from an earlier version of the land use map that stated there would be a range of so many units per building lot, when in fact it should have said “per acre,” Lesko said.

There is a difference between a building lot and an acre of land. One acre is 43,560 square feet. A building lot – the parcel on which a house or building sits – may be less than one acre or it may be more than one acre.

There are no plans or recommendations to “up-zone,” or increase the density in town, Lesko said. Any changes in the land use or zoning ordinance would be made by the Princeton Council through the land use ordinance.

Nevertheless, during the public hearing, many attendees questioned the possibility of increased density. Some attendees call for the Planning Board to delay a vote on the Master Plan.

Paul Walberg, who lives on Walnut Lane, said he was happy with most of the Master Plan, except for the density issue. He said he was one of more than 1,000 signers of a change.org petition that called for the Planning Board to hold off on adopting the Master Plan.

“I came into the process late, and what I see concerns me and surprises me. We all need to trust the Planning Board to do things that help the residents and not the developers,” Walberg said.

Walberg suggested a pause in adopting the Master Plan to allow more people to digest its contents. This would ensure that the Master Plan is accepted by residents and that its contents do not come as a surprise.

However, Robert Freudenberg, who lives on Palmer Square West, encouraged the Planning Board to adopt the Master Plan. Much has changed since the 1996 Master Plan, he said.

The proposed Master Plan gives a chance to see “where we are and who we want to be going forward, and how to get there,” Freudenberg said. The town is at a crossroads and has become less affordable, less equitable and less sustainable.

“Change is coming, whether the Master Plan goes forward or not. Following the Master Plan allows us to shape (change). Adopting the Master Plan starts the process, it does not end it,” he said.

After listening to more than four hours of public comment, Planning Board members outlined their reasons for adopting the 2023 Community Master Plan.

Princeton Councilman David Cohen, who sits on the Planning Board, said he was voting to adopt the Master Plan because the town has changed and will continue to change.

“For better or worse, change is inevitable. If we don’t plan for the change we want, we get the change we don’t want,” Cohen said.

While there has been much criticism of the Master Plan, none of the critics offered suggestions or proposals for a better solution, he said.

Critics of the perceived increase in density in the Master Plan are confusing it with the new apartment developments that are under construction around the Princeton Shopping Center, Cohen said.

Those apartment developments, plus the apartment development on Thanet Circle, grew out of a lawsuit settlement between the town and the Fair Share Housing Center, he said. The nonprofit group sued the town for failing to provide its fair share of affordable housing.

Planning Board member Jack Taylor deflected calls to delay adopting the Master Plan, stating that it is a policy document. It sets out the town’s vision for itself, but nothing will happen until a new land use ordinance is adopted by the Princeton Council, he said.

Planning Board Vice Chairman Tim Quinn said that “Princeton” is in the eye of the beholder. Some view it as a college town and others see it as a bedroom community, he said.

It would be difficult to find consensus because Princeton means different things to different people, Quinn said. The residents who have asked for a pause believe that more time spent reviewing the Master Plan will lead to a consensus, but that is not a likely outcome, he said.

Princeton Councilwoman Mia Sacks, who sits on the Planning Board, said it was unfortunate that the land use map created anxiety and confusion. It will not affect the Riverside, Western Section or Institute neighborhoods, whose residents claimed it would negatively impact them, she said.

Sacks acknowledged that continued development will lead to more school children and it will have an impact on school capacity. However, it has already occurred as a result of the new apartment buildings that resulted from the Fair Share Housing Center lawsuit, she said.

Sacks said she could not think of a more depressing endeavor than to create a plan for the future of the town that focuses on how to keep children out.

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