Conference center designated under ANR as blighted
In a recent NJ Supreme ruling, Malanga v Township of West Orange, it ruled that the town improperly designated the site of its public library as an area in need of redevelopment (ANR) under the Local Redevelopment and Housing Law. The court reaffirmed that the standard for declaring a property or building in need of redevelopment must be that the property is ‘blighted’ AND must prove that the area is detrimental to the community and that there is a public purpose to redeveloping buildings. They also emphasized that the fact that a property is old or requires modernizing is not confirmation of ‘blight’.
Why is this relevant to Princeton? In recent years, at least 3 approvals of an ANR, primarily to enable property developers and owners to override existing zoning and to secure tax breaks in the form of PILOT’s (Payments In Lieu Of Taxes) have been granted. Given that Princeton has a shortage of buildable land that generally sells at a premium there is very little, if any, property that comes even close to the standard for being ‘blighted’.
What’s more, the recent Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) properties illustrate this issue perfectly. Of the 10 properties classified under the ANR, one was a playing field and others were used for residential, recreational, and even conference use (as pictured above). The ANR approval resulted in several historic buildings being demolished and the properties being offered to a developer who is looking for favorable zoning and a tax break. The remaining properties, all of which are still in use, including the playing field, still fall under the ANR designation..
The court has highlighted that these type of ANR designations are clearly in violation of the law and represent an overly broad interpretation of the law, which has been so enthusiastically embraced by developers.
What should be done?
To respect this ruling, existing ANR approvals should be reviewed, and where relevant, they should be corrected to comply with the proper interpretation of the law. This would include, for projects not approved, not negotiating further PILOT agreements that negatively impact school funding and property taxes, and also reasserting compliance with underlying zoning. For properties that are presently in use, including playing fields, the ANR should be rescinded, and the properties should revert to their underlying zoning, making them subject to normal planning processes. This potentially represents an opportunity for Princeton Council to redirect development towards affordable housing re-
aligning with the public interest and using tax breaks to encourage developers to prioritize affordable development.
While this decision sets a precedent and highlights the importance of ensuring that ANR designations are made in accordance with the law and serve a true public interest, it does not automatically prohibit the use of ANR designations in the state. Instead, it calls for greater scrutiny, transparency, and adherence to legal standards when making such designations.