State to Even Playing Field for Private Colleges

Planning Additions and Renovations May Get Easier for University

new_art_buildingA bill in the New Jersey General Assembly could affect the University with regard to zoning laws. Assembly bill 2586/ Senate bill 1534 would give private universities such as Monmouth the same status under the Municipal Land Use Law as public universities. Right now public universities are exempt from local zoning jurisdiction, while private universities are not. This bill will give private universities an even playing field. The bill has passed the New Jersey State Senate with a 26-8 vote and is now waiting in the Assembly Higher Education Committee.

According to Peter Reinhart, Esq. Director, Kislak Real Estate Institute, “The difference is that Monmouth has to go through the planning and zoning board of adjustments in the town while public universities such as Rutgers are exempt.” Reinhart does mention, however, that the University will still have to open up the plan for public comment; it can choose to ignore such provisions.

President Paul Gaffney is optimistic that a bill like this will help improve the University. “This bill would eliminate the middleman and it will help control costs.” Gaffney mentioned how projects have taken years and during that time the project no longer costs the same. “We receive no money from the state so we have a budget set on original pricing before labor and construction costs. Many buildings are supported by philanthropy.”

Despite the bill allowing exemption from the zoning and planning board, Gaffney said, “This bill will speed the process up, save money on fees but we must call for all inspections.” The public can still comment on the project. Gaffney continues to wish to be a good neighbor to the West Long Branch community in which most people have a personal connection to the University. Paul Dement, Director of Community and Government Relations for the University, said “It is in our interest to get along with the community so it helps grow the campus. We make a commitment to serving the community and encourage students to volunteer.”

Gaffney said that despite not having to get approval from the zoning board or the planning board, the University is very open to suggestions from the community. “We listen to neighbors throughout the process; we build beautiful, strong buildings and landscape them.”

Dement and Gaffney believe this type of bill and improvements to other private universities will help slow down the “New Jersey Brain Drain.” The Brain Drain is the result of universities and colleges in New Jersey not being able to accommodate students of their own state, forcing students to leave the state to further their education. “If a student goes out of state to school, the chances of them coming back to New Jersey is slim,” said Gaffney.

The University has had projects slowed down due to the planning and zoning boards. Hughes v. Monmouth University was one such case, which was filed in reference to the approval of Mullaney Hall. “The Board voted five to one to approve the application, granting thirteen distinct use and bulk variances. Thereafter, plaintiffs filed a complaint in lieu of prerogative writs with the Law Division, claiming that several Board members should have been disqualified because of financial or personal involvement with the University,” according to case records. Gaffney said this is also an issue with local zoning and planning board. “Many people on these boards cannot vote due to connections to the University.”

This bill has also been examined by local politicians. State Senator Jennifer Beck, who represents the University in District 11 voted “no” on S1534. Nicholas Raspanti, Legislative Director, said the reason for voting “no” was “It was against the will of the constituents.” He also said that the supporters were normally with ties to the University while those who said they didn’t want the bill said it was “encroachment.”

Meanwhile, Assemblyman Sean Kean of District 30, which includes southern Monmouth County and part of Ocean County, believes so much in the bill that he co-sponsored the Assembly version of the bill, A2586. His district includes private college, Georgian Court. His logic behind sponsoring this bill is, “I sponsored this bill because I know that it can be difficult for private colleges to get zoning approval for new buildings or approvals to expand a current facility. In addition, it can also be expensive for schools to obtain the necessary permits. In order for private colleges to offer competitive academic programs, they must be able to responsibly grow their campus to their student needs. I believe this growth can be accomplished while balancing the concerns of local homeowners.”

Kean also received negative feedback about the bill from constituents. “I have heard from a few constituents who have concerns about the bill. Understandably, they do not want private schools to be able to build whatever they want without considering for how it will impact the surrounding community. My expectation is that private schools will use this exemption in a reasonable fashion. Public colleges are required to consult with local authorities regarding institutional development and to allow for input in order to minimize potential conflicts with local governmental interests. Under the bill, private schools would also have to consult with local authorities,” said Kean.

Gaffney is also aware that some members of the community may not be happy with such a bill but vows “We will be willing to work with them.” Reinhart also said that some towns are even concerned they may be losing power. Some critics of the bill say it will also lead to bad planning. Reinhart counters that statement by saying that it just speeds up the process but still allows the public to comment.

This bill has become the topic of editorials in local area newspapers. In the Asbury Park Press on August 26, Melanie Willoughby, Senior Vice President of New Jersey Business and Industry Association wrote, “Public institutions are currently required to receive input from their host town when seeking to construct facilities on their campuses. This system has worked well for the public institutions and their host communities for decades under this bill, private institutions would do the same.” She also points out that, “Construction projects among the state’s 14 private, nonprofit higher educational institutions are often delayed for months. These delays raise construction costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars, pushing tuition costs even higher.”

Other local groups are behind the bill. Monmouth-Ocean Development Council passed a resolution on September 7, 2012 that requested that A2586 be pushed out of the committee in the Assembly and pushed forward for a full Assembly vote.

Students are even getting involved and educated on this bill. Shawna Sullivan, political science major, recommends a way to improve the campus, if this bill passes “I think this bill will mean that the University will be able to increase its commuter parking areas, something that it desperately needs. Even with the recent renovations to the lot last year, there is still not enough parking to accommodate Monmouth’s nearly 50 percent commuter population. Even the residential side of campus could use more parking areas.”

Sullivan also mentions how necessary it is for students to stay on top of political stories such as this. “I think that people should be made aware of these laws because college students should be able to help improve their campuses with improvements to the school’s zoning abilities. Students should also keep themselves apprised of local political events and contact their state representatives.”

Reinhart said there is virtually no downside for the University on this bill. “Ultimately the University has fiscal restraints and they will do whatever the need dictates such as the parking needs among others.”

PHOTO COURTESY of Alexis Orlacchio