Assembly Bill A2586 (read here for the full text), along with companion Senate Bill S1534, proposes changes to the land use laws which would exempt private colleges and universities from the zoning ordinances of any municipality. Local governments have historically assigned property in cities and towns to different zones based on what is appropriate use for each property. This allows them to maintain residential neighborhoods with single family homes, while allowing for growth of commercial and industrial properties in areas designated for those purposes. Local zoning laws allow towns to plan for their own growth and to maintain the character of their towns as they so choose.
As it stands today, no privately owned property is exempt from local zoning ordinances. Public colleges and universities in New Jersey are exempt from these laws because of a 40 year old court case that granted them an exemption. However, that case, Rutgers vs. Piluso, primarily addressed the issue based on Rutgers’ standing as an instrument of state government, and not as a college, and the NJ Supreme Court granted the exemption due to its standing as a state government entity. This is an important distinction, as public colleges and universities continue to have government oversight at the state and county levels. Therefore this exemption is somewhat limited, and checks and balances remain intact.
The synopsis of A2586 states that it “Equalizes standing of public and private colleges before land use agencies”. It actually does no such thing. It actually grants private colleges a complete exemption from any governmental oversight in determining appropriate use for a property. While public colleges continue to have oversight at the state and county levels, and must ultimately answer to those authorities with regard to land use, private colleges will have absolutely no checks on their use of land. They would only be required to consult with local land use agencies, but would have no further obligations and would have no requirements for approvals at any level of government.
If this bill becomes law, the effects on cities and towns that host private colleges will be stark. A college would be within its rights under this law to buy any single family home in a residential neighborhood, tear it down, and replace it with a parking lot. If that lot was owned by an individual or even a corporation, the only permitted use would be a single family home, but if the lot is owned by a college, the college can do whatever it wants with the lot. Since there is no government oversight of a private college at any level, nothing can prevent them from demolishing entire neighborhoods if they so choose. If this bill becomes law, parking lots, office buildings, dormitories, athletic centers, and anything else a college wants, can be built on any property they choose to purchase, without restriction. This will undoubtedly have negative implications for the quality of life of local residents and the values of properties in close proximity to these colleges.