By Anne Levin
At its June 2 meeting, Princeton’s Planning Board voted in favor of a request by the Hun School to rezone two properties from R-2 (residential) to E-4 (educational). The matter will next be taken up by Princeton Council.
The two properties are the Mall, an open green space to be kept undeveloped in perpetuity; and the Mason House lot, which was formerly the headmaster’s home. It is no longer needed as a residence because the headmaster now lives in a house that was donated to the school by the late Betty Wold Johnson.
The school used the Mason House recently for academic support, in order to increase space for the campus infirmary during the COVID-19 pandemic. The zoning change would allow academic support uses, including a visual arts center and a new home for the Office of Institutional Advancement. The rezoning would allow for a greater floor area ratio (FAR), which would give the school more space to meet local regulations for additions, or improvements to existing facilities.
The request was originally endorsed by the Planning Board and referred to Council last year. But when the governing body voted on whether to adopt it, no final decision was reached because the vote was a tie, and the procedure to follow was unclear. After researching proper procedure, municipal attorney Trishka Cecil concluded the following day that the ordinance had been defeated.
It was brought to the Planning Board again at its May 19 meeting, and last week’s discussion was a carry-over from that date. Justin Lesko, the town’s senior planner, told the members of the board that the rezoning request was identical to the one presented last year, when it was deemed to be consistent with master plan.
Some 50 members of the public were signed on to the Zoom meeting. As they did the first time around, several residents of the neighborhood next to the school spoke against the change, citing traffic, noise, environmental issues, and other concerns. Other neighbors and representatives of Hun voiced support for the rezoning.
“I’m speaking in support of the request by Hun,” said Eve Coulson, whose backyard fence is on the Hun property line. “It strikes me as eminently reasonable. In the 29 years I have been here, the school has renovated and repurposed and built new, all without changing the character of the neighborhood.”
Resident Stuart Prager voiced opposition to the proposal, “with reluctance and no pleasure,” he said. “With the information we all have available, it is not possible for anyone to draw a conclusion whether their goals of consistent or inconsistent with the master plan.” Prager added that the school’s plans to build where the Mason House is presently located “could either leave a lot of open space, or not. We just don’t know. I’m concerned that there has been confounding information on this.”
Neighborhood resident Arthur Eisenbach, who lives next to the school, said, “Everything that has been mentioned about the use of this property is all speculative. There is nothing that commits the school to any specific type of usage, just the square footage [not more than 9,000 square feet]. I, as a neighbor and abutter, want to know a lot more about what they will actually do with this property.”
Richard Goldman, the attorney representing the school, said Hun is at full buildout. “The school cannot do its master planning or strategic planning for the future on land that’s not zoned for the use. When we heard the concerns of the neighbors, we offered to permanently deed-restrict the mall as permanent open space,” he said. “With the Mason House lot, we proposed a deed restriction permanently limiting construction to not more than 9,000 square feet of FAR.”
Jonathan Brougham, Hun’s head of school, said, “We love our neighborhood. We would never do anything that would hurt the neighborhood, because it’s where we live, too, and would never want to pollute the waters we swim in.”
He added, “I can assure you the school has no desire to increase enrollment, traffic, parking, or any of the other nuisances that could come with new construction. It’s purely for program needs. Education keeps evolving and we need to keep up with that.”
The vote by the planners in favor of the request was unanimous. Council may vote on the issue at its June 13 meeting, which starts at 7 p.m.