Uncommon Princeton Citizens For Common Causes

By Anne Levin

When faced with an issue that threatens their health, safety, property values or aesthetic sensibilities, some people feel powerless and look the other way. Others might be willing to sign a petition, or maybe write a small check supporting the cause. Then there is another category, made up of those for whom an issue becomes almost an obsession. Galvanized by a desire for change, they are the ones who show up religiously at municipal meetings. They hand out leaflets in supermarket parking lots. They canvas their neighbors door-to-door. They do research and write to their legislators. And they organize themselves into citizen action groups, joining forces to challenge public and private institutions they feel are threatening their rights.

Princeton is home to a sizable share of these organizations. Save the Dinky, Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods (PCSN), Association for Planning at Hospital Site (APHS), the Princeton Battlefield Preservation Society (PBS), Walkable Princeton, Save the Princeton Ridge–these are only some of the grass roots groups that have formed, in recent years, to tackle issues ranging from redevelopment to environmental hazards. While their efforts have met with varying levels of success, nearly all have accomplished at least some modicum of change. Along the way, they have learned which methods work.

“When an interest group is too broad-based, and has people involved in too many other activities such as ties to local political organizations, it loses its ability to fight as effectively as it needs to,” says attorney Bruce Afran, who has worked with Save the Dinky, which has sought to keep Princeton University from moving the Dinky train station as part of its Arts & Transit development; and the Princeton Battlefield Preservation Society, opposed to The Institute for Advanced Study’s plan for faculty housing adjacent to the historic Princeton Battlefield State Park. “A civic group must be as single-minded as those institutions it is opposing in order to be effective.”

Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert finds that the most productive citizen action groups are the ones that do their homework. “The best thing is for a group to be very knowledgeable, to consult with other towns and communities and residents from other places who have gone through similar battles and know what the law is,” she says. “It’s also important for them to know what is possible under the current law, or what specifically needs to be changed.”

Retired Rutgers professor and poet Daniel Harris, a veteran of three citizen groups, might disagree with Lempert’s assessment. “It’s the job of a municipality to operate in such an effective manner as never to need to combat a lawsuit mounted by its citizens,” he says. “It needs to do its own research so citizens don’t have to. That’s what I’ve learned in the past five years.”

Harris and his wife, Jane Buttars, founders of People for the Princeton Ridge, Inc., were among those opposed to the initial plan for the Copperwood senior housing development on Bunn Drive. Worried about the size of the project, the number of trees to be felled, and stormwater runoff, they were eventually able to persuade architect/developer Bob Hillier to scale the project down from 17 acres to four.

“We think the process was an education for Bob,” Harris says of the architect, “and he was willing to listen to what we had to say. Over a period of time, we got a site plan that was more or less acceptable. We hope there will be some more planting of trees. So that had a happy conclusion.”

Less satisfying was the outcome of 18 months of work by Harris and other members of the group Princeton Citizens for Sustainable Neighborhoods to change developer AvalonBay’s plans for a 280-unit rental community at the Princeton Hospital site. Raising $100,000 from donations, the group sued the developer but eventually voted to withdraw the suit, and their opposition to the plan, because of mounting legal bills.

“It was a difficult decision,” says Alexi Assmus, one of the five original PCSN members. “We got significant changes made to the project–some more low income affordable housing, and funds for public art. But we ran out of money for legal fees and we had to stop. We had over 100 donors, but only a few of us had responsibility for the bills.”

Assmus feels the town of Princeton’s legal representation is too conservative in opposing developers. “That’s why citizen groups sue developers,” she says. “I don’t know if that’s the reason we have so many citizen groups here, but elsewhere it seems there is a tougher attitude about development.” PCSN still exists, but is currently “taking a breather,” Assmus says. In the meantime, a second group opposed to aspects of AvalonBay’s plan formed last summer after the town’s Planning Board approved a revised proposal for the project. Known as Association for Planning at Hospital Site, the group has been focused on environmental hazards and safety as well as concerns about the density and bulk of the design.

“When the Planning Board voted to accept the proposal last summer, a group of us began to talk about what we might be able to do to alter what we saw as a regrettable course of action,” says Evan Yassky, an architect and neighborhood resident. “It has been gratifying to collaborate with a diverse group of citizens who, while having individual points of view, are well-aligned towards working to create a better Princeton.” Yassky and other members of the group have spent many evening hours and weekends meeting, researching, and fundraising. Eight of them served as plaintiffs in a lawsuit of AvalonBay, but received an unfavorable ruling and elected not to appeal. Still, their efforts have not been in vain. “What we’ve done is open people’s eyes to the process,” says APHS member and neighborhood resident Areta Pawlynsky, an architect. “By organizing, we can have an impact. Individually, we can’t. The question is how things will be improved.”

Members of the group say that without the work the group has done, Princeton Council would not have opted to hire independent environmental consultant Ira Whitman, whose recommendations for more environmental testing at the site were adopted by the Council. “I believe that APHS has changed the dialogue on the AvalonBay project, and beyond that, the way that development is approached,” Yassky says. AvalonBay refused to sign the developer’s agreement calling for additional testing and in May filed suit against the town. At press time, the developer and the town were still in court.

Anita Garoniak, a Princeton resident who works in pharmaceutical marketing, was one of the original forces behind the non-profit Save the Dinky in 2010. “We formed when we heard of a push to change the Dinky into a bus rapid transit,” she says. “We started a Facebook page, and got 7,000 people–alumni of the University, neighbors, citizens—to join us, all in opposition to the idea. And it began from there.”

The group has objected to several aspects of the University’s plan for moving the train to a new station 460 south of its former site (the station is currently operating out of a temporary location and a new building is under construction). Lawsuits have been filed; an appeal and an administrative claim are currently pending. Though a number of their efforts have been met with setbacks, Save the Dinky continues its fight. “It’s not the love of my life, but it’s just hard to sit by and watch things be done like this,” says Garoniak. “What has been accomplished is that we have informed the public about what the real issues are. There was this misconception in the beginning that bus rapid transit was a wonderful, advanced system. But it’s really a bus on a dedicated road, which we really don’t have here.”

The efforts of Save the Dinky, the Battlefield Preservation Society and a group of local residents challenging Princeton University’s tax exemption status have been bolstered by The Eleanor Lewis Fund. This independent entity was established by late Princeton attorney Eleanor Lewis, who died in 2010, to tackle New Jersey-based issues involving abuses of power. Afran is the legal director.

“She wanted it set up to be able to specifically take on these causes. It has only that one agenda,” he said. “The fund is not involved in the Princeton Community Democratic Organization, Not in Our Town, or any other such organizations. It has no conflicts of interest. They don’t have to worry about offending anyone. The only focus is taking on abuses of power, and that’s one of the reasons they are effective.”

Community activist Kip Cherry’s involvement in Save the Dinky, Save the Valley Road School, and the Princeton Battlefield Preservation Society, among other causes, stems from her interest in the concept of privacy and individual freedom. “That basic concept of freedom relates to everything I’m involved in,” she said. Regarding the Battlefield issue, “It’s not just about honoring military battle,” she continued. “It’s about having a place where people can learn about how the country was started, what makes us unique as Americans. It’s a huge message, extremely important to me personally and to our nation. It’s also the opportunity for heritage dollars.”

When the Oklahoma-based Williams Company announced plans to extend a natural gas pipeline through an environmentally sensitive, 1.2-mile swath of the Princeton Ridge in early 2013, a group of residents organized the Princeton Ridge Coalition. Starting with a dozen residents, the organization has grown to include 150 on its mailing list, not all of whom live in the immediate area of the pipeline.While they have made progress in resolving several issues related to safety and environmental issues, some serious concerns remain.

The group has often included local government and municipal staff in its monthly meetings with the Williams Company. “We’ve had a significant impact on the kind of questions that FERC [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] and the New Jersey DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] have been asking,” says Barbara Blumenthal, president of the group. “These agencies that have a role to play depend on local input in order to do their jobs because they don’t have the resources to know when a company is not doing what they should, or telling them something that isn’t true. So we’ve been able to tell them.”

The Coalition includes engineers, biologists, physicists, and attorneys among its members. “Often times as an elected official, you feel like everyone thinks that they’re an expert,” says Mayor Lempert. “But in Princeton, they really are. We have a lot to learn from our residents and there is a lot they are able to contribute.”

“I see neighborhood groups almost always as partners,” she continues. “We’re lucky that this is a community where we all feel invested and want the best outcomes. Sometimes there are differences of opinion as to what that is, but it’s important to listen to people who will be most impacted.”

 

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