New Jersey’s Drew U takes on his city over land sale

Drew University in Madison, NJ, has been working on a plan for a year to sell 63 acres of its 168-acre campus to a developer, but it needs city government support to get the most money for it. the property. After years of protracted talks, city leaders declined to back the sale of the land, which is mostly undeveloped forest land that could be turned into affordable housing.

Drew University went to court in June to force the issue, accusing city officials of acting in bad faith, wasting their time and preventing “100 low- and middle-income families from calling Madison their home”.

“For more than four years, Madison has engaged in a sophisticated scheme to circumvent its constitutional obligation for affordable housing and prevent the construction of inclusive housing on the vacant and developable lands of one of its largest, if not the larger, landowners,” University attorney Drew said. written in the 36-page folder.

University officials made no secret of the cash-strapped institution’s need for the money the sale would bring. They want to use the funds to strengthen the university’s endowment.

Madison officials have yet to directly address the charges in court, but said at a recent town hall meeting that Drew’s decision to go to court was disappointing. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for later this month.

“It’s something that I, as mayor and Madison as a whole, cannot take personally,” Madison Mayor Robert Conley said. “It shows that they have concerns about their financial stability, and they see it as a pathway to help them get to where they need to be. We see it as a detour and an ill-advised challenge, but that doesn’t change anything. our commitment to support them.

University leaders responded in a statement that the mayor was trying to distract the public by criticizing the university’s handling of its finances.

“Drew has straightened out his financial affairs, but there is a growing need for student financial aid and Drew needs to add to his endowment to do this,” the statement read. “Proceeds from any land sale will go directly to improving the University’s endowment strength and will be dedicated to providing financial support to deserving students.”

The private university of about 2,200 students, located in the small town of nearly 17,000 people, has struggled financially amid declining enrollment and other pandemic-related financial challenges. Selling the land is one of the ways university officials are seeking to bolster Drew’s endowment, which officials say has taken a hit in recent years.

Drew alleged in the filing that Madison officials failed to include the 63 acres of college land in the borough’s official tally of land available for affordable housing. The calculation was part of a lengthy legal process to determine whether the city was complying with state affordable housing laws. The city reached an agreement in August 2020 with the Fair Share Housing Center, which works to enforce and expand affordable housing laws. Drew’s officials are now looking to leave the colony.

Drew requested “at a minimum” a hearing to consider how his surplus land can be “rezoned to provide additional affordable housing in a municipality where the need is so great,” according to the filing.

“In filing the petition, Drew University seeks to establish a rational path with respect to the future zoning of its outlying lands,” university officials said in a new statement Wednesday.

Madison officials, community members, and some Drew students and alumni opposed plans to turn 45 acres of forest land into housing. The borough council passed a resolution opposing land development and in favor of preservation, while others circulated petitions and formed a nonprofit organization aimed at keeping the forest a forest.

Drew isn’t the only institution reassessing its physical campus and downsizing in light of declining enrollment trends. Last year, the University of Akron announced plans to reallocate, sell or lease one million square feet of its campus.

Stephen Gavazzi, president of College Town Assessment, which studies and measures campus-community relationships, said the post-pandemic environment is likely to increase tensions between colleges and residents and government leaders in surrounding communities, especially among institutions that do not already do so. have strong relationships.

“As campuses feel the crisis, in turn, our communities feel the crisis,” said Gavazzi, who is also a professor of human development and family sciences at Ohio State University. “To use the analogy of marriage: If you have a rocky marriage and suddenly someone loses their job, or you have some other economic situation or health-related emergency, all bets are off and the things are going to get really bad. ”

How universities choose to use their land can drive a wedge between a campus and the surrounding community, he said. Navigating the corner depends on the quality of the campus-community relationship. While he doesn’t know the details of the Drew-Madison disagreement, he said he hopes both entities have tried all avenues before going to court.

“Because when you go to court, it increases the level of seriousness,” he said, adding that such a decision can “represent the death knell for the relationship.”

Conley, the mayor, said he didn’t want that to happen.

“Drew is too important to Madison to struggle, so we’re right there with them,” Conley said. “The looming enrollment cliff of 2025 is approaching, so we need to work fairly quickly to stabilize it, because it will be a devastating time and it will be a challenge for universities, especially the smaller liberal arts colleges in the Northeast, of survive this cliff. .”

“Precious resource”

For Drew students, the forest preserve is an integral part of the campus experience. Conservationists note that the site is also home to a variety of native plants and wildlife and helps replenish the aquifer that provides drinking water to nearby towns.

University officials said the aquifer recharge area and arboretum that are part of the forest would not be included in a land sale.

Deborah Ellis, vice president of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey, said at a recent Madison borough meeting that she applauded the city’s commitment to saving the forest, which serves as a “room a unique living class, an essential refuge for native plants and an important refuge for wildlife”. corridor.”

“New Jersey, as you surely know, is the most densely populated state in the country, and the areas that maintain native flora are rare and valuable,” she told the city council. “It would be nothing short of tragic for the people of Madison, Morris County and indeed all of New Jersey to lose this precious resource.”

Drew executives view vacant land on the outskirts of campus as ripe for development. University President Tom Schwarz and the Board of Trustees have spent more than a year exploring ways to improve the university’s finances. The plan to sell the 63 acres grew out of these talks. (Note: This paragraph has been revised to indicate that the President of Drew University is no longer acting.)

“Drew must take swift action to ensure the long-term health of the University, preserving our ability to continue our legacy of funding educational programs and providing financial aid to students,” university officials said in a statement. an online FAQ on the sale of land.

The property in question can currently only be used for academic purposes unless Madison officials agree to rezone it. But borough officials aren’t supporting forest development, Conley said.

“Our goal is to preserve the forest,” Conley said, adding that he wants Madison to purchase the university property using local and state funds. “For a very long time, it was preserved thanks to the sole commitment of the university. Obviously, they’re in a position where they can’t do that anymore.

Drew officials stated in the FAQ that “a competitive market price curation offer with what the developers would be willing to pay is a win-win situation for the university.”