by Toni Alimi
Last month, an article in the Daily Princetonian was published celebrating the rather remarkable achievement of Westerly Road Church’s Senior Pastor Matt Ristuccia, who has now been with the church for 25 years. This article was met with a host of criticism. What particularly drew the ire of the critics were the church’s attempts to build new property at Princeton Ridge.
Perhaps the most common criticism was that it would be best for the environment if the church were to expand on its current property rather than building on new land. But in fact, when Westerly Road Church first attempted to address overcrowding problems almost fifteen years ago, that was precisely the approach it took.
In the mid 1990’s, Westerly Road Church proposed to the township a plan to build on more of the 5-acre property that they currently own. At that time, land-right agreements dating back to the 1950s dictated a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) of .25, meaning that 25% of the property’s 5 acres could be used for actual construction. At this time, the church building was already too small to accommodate the church’s burgeoning population. David Keddie, a Princeton Evangelical Fellowship staff member who was a junior at Princeton when this plan was proposed, recalls how he was “teaching Sunday School in a closet” because their space was so inadequate. Nevertheless, the residents of the surrounding area blocked Westerly’s attempts to expand on their current property. Fearing that a larger building would increase traffic flow through the area on weekends, they were able to force the hand of the township, which halved the church’s FAR on that property, effectively eliminating any possibility for future expansion there.
From 2004-2005, the church began to pursue a piece of property on the Princeton Pike. However, under New Jersey law, the church required variances (exceptions from city/state land zoning laws) to purchase and build on that property. These variances, too, were denied. Interestingly, on that very property now sits a rather large mansion, suggesting that the township’s reluctance to let the church relocate there was out of concern for property tax revenue, rather than environmental considerations. Nevertheless, 5 years and millions of dollars later, Westerly Road Church looks closer than ever to meeting their long-term goal of acquiring new property. Because the property the church now owns on Bunn Drive is a commercial strip, it requires no variances on New Jersey state law.
That is not to say that the current relocation attempt has not been met with criticism and controversy. Interestingly, one of the biggest arguments of environmentalist opponents is that the new construction plan is not ‘smart growth’. This environmentalist buzzword refers to the ideal of putting “long range sustainability over short term focus.” Nevertheless, Keddie pointed out that, “low density is the opposite of smart growth.” This in fact makes sense – if only a very low percentage of land can be used for building, suburban and rural areas will have to sprawl out in order to accommodate various groups and organizations. Not only does this mean the inevitable cutting down of more acres of trees and plants (and, subsequently, the disturbance of indigenous species), but as towns and cities sprawl, inhabitants become less likely to bike and walk, and public transportation will become less feasible, thus leaving residents with no viable option other than to travel in personal vehicles.
Sprawl very obviously presents itself as a less environmentally conscious alternative to higher population densities. An average American suburb has a density of 5 residents per acre, while the minimum density required for the state to fund public transport is 7-8 residents per acre. These numbers are a far cry from the 2 resident per acre standards that the Princeton Environmental Commission recommended in their January report on Westerly Road. Westerly Road’s building difficulties thus reveal the inherent contradictions between various tenets of environmentalism. “Green” advocates want to achieve both the aesthetic value of suburban and rural communities as well as the energy efficiency of urban neighborhoods – two goals that are mutually exclusive. The result is that the application of environmentalist principles becomes arbitrary, and can be used to justify the approval or rejection of projects depending not on a set of universal guidelines, but rather on the whims of bureaucrats and elected officials catering to the demands of special interest groups.
Another opposition talking point concerned a bird species indigenous to the Princeton area – the Cooper’s hawk. This hawk is scientifically classified as endangered in this area, and various environmentalists were concerned that building on the Bunn Drive property might unsettle or permanently displace any birds living in that area. Although Westerly Road Church did eventually hire an ornithologist to prove that there were indeed no birds living in the area where they wished to build, a little of research shows the whole talking point to be extremely misleading. The Cooper’s hawk is of no national concern anymore, since the main threat to its survival was the use of DDT, which has been banned for four decades. Indeed, it is very close to being removed from the endangered species list altogether. In addition, Cooper’s hawks are very adaptable creatures and actually thrive in suburban and urban areas more than rural areas. The pigeon, which also makes its home in suburban and urban areas, serves as a prey of choice for the hawk. More construction therefore does no harm to this hawk species – in fact, it aids its already thriving growth. The environmentalist critics ignored these facts in pursuit of their ideological goal of halting further development.
Despite the myriad obstacles that the Westerly Road Church has faced in its quest for expansion, it appears that the controversy is on the verge of a favorable resolution. In March, the Site Plan Review Advisory Board (SPRAB) recommended that the Regional Planning Board of Princeton not approve Westerly’s design unless it either made a host of changes or proposed a two-story building design. The church has been adamant on some issues – for example, it will not consider leaving Princeton– but on a series of other subjects it has been willing to concede. Following an April town hall meeting, the church decided to propose a two-story building to accommodate the qualms of the SPRAB. In addition, the church has agreed to greatly reduce the size of its parking lot and has proposed a shared parking arrangement with nearby organizations.
I discussed the implications of eminent domain with Mr. Keddie, inquiring if he or the church had any fears that the township would exercise this right and claim the property from the church by force. Under the Supreme Court precedent set in the 2005 case of Kelo v. New London, municipalities have the power to transfer land from one private party to another. As he explained, the Township is broke, and even with eminent domain, it would have to purchase the Princeton Pike property to exercise its powers, thus rendering such an outcome highly unlikely.
Because of all of this, the church remains confident that the Board will approve their latest push for a new building. There are no legal precedents to suggest otherwise, and with the concessions the church has made, there is hope that the board is finally ready to put an end to the posturing of environmentalism and do the right thing.