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Drew University’s 45-acre preserve is home to native plants and wildlife.

Courtesy of Drew University

Drew University in Madison, N.J., has been working for the last year on a plan to sell off 63 acres of its 168-acre campus to a developer, but it needs the support of the town government to get the most money for the property. After years of protracted talks, the town leaders refused to support the sale of the land, which is mostly undeveloped forestland that could be developed into affordable housing.

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

“For over four years, Madison engaged in a sophisticated scheme to skirt its constitutional affordable housing obligation and prevent inclusionary housing from being constructed on the vacant and developable lands of one of its largest—if not the largest—landholders,” counsel for Drew University wrote in the 36-page filing.

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

Madison officials haven’t yet directly responded to the accusations in court but said at a recent public meeting that Drew’s decision to go to court was disappointing. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for later this month.

“This is something that I as mayor and Madison as a whole can’t take personally,” Madison mayor Robert Conley said. “It shows that they have concerns about their financial stability, and they view this as a route to help them get to where they need to be. We view it as a detour and misguided challenge, but it doesn’t change our commitment to supporting 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 righted its financial affairs, but there is a growing need for financial aid for college students and Drew needs to add to its endowment to do so,” the statement said. “Proceeds from any land sale will go directly to improving the strength of the University’s endowment and 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, has struggled financially amid declining enrollment and other financial challenges related to the pandemic. The land sale is one way university officials are looking to strengthen Drew’s endowment, which the officials said has taken a hit in the last several years.

Drew alleged in the filing that Madison officials did not include the 63 acres of university land in the borough’s official count of available land for affordable housing. The calculation was part of a lengthy legal process to determine whether the town was complying with state affordable housing laws. The town reached a settlement in August 2020 with the Fair Share Housing Center, which works to enforce and expand affordable housing laws. Drew officials are now seeking to vacate the settlement.

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

“By filing the motion, Drew University is seeking to establish a rational path forward with regard to the future zoning of its peripheral lands,” university officials said in new statement Wednesday.

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

Drew is not the only institution re-evaluating its physical campus and downsizing in light of declining enrollment trends. Last year, the University of Akron announced plans to repurpose, sell or lease up one million square feet of its campus.

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

“As campuses feel the crunch, in turn, our communities feel the crunch,” said Gavazzi, who is also a professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University. “To use the marriage analogy: if you have a rocky marriage, and all of a sudden someone loses a job, or you have another economic circumstance or a health-related emergency, all bets are off and things are going to get really bad.”

How universities opt to use their lands can drive a wedge between a campus and the surrounding community, he said. Navigating the wedge depends on the quality of the campus-community relationship. Although he’s not familiar with the specifics of the Drew-Madison disagreement, he said he hoped both entities tried every avenue before going to court.

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

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

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

‘Precious Resource’

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

University officials have said the aquifer-recharge area and arboretum that are part of the forest wouldn’t 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 town’s commitment to saving the forest, which serves as a “unique living classroom, a critical native plant refuge and a major wildlife corridor.”

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

Drew’s leaders see the vacant land on the periphery of the campus as being prime for development. University president Tom Schwarz and the Board of Trustees spent more than a year exploring ways to improve the university’s finances. The plan to sell the 63 acres stemmed from those talks. (Note: This paragraph was revised to reflect that Drew University's president is no longer serving on an interim basis.) 

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

The property in question can currently only be used for university purposes, unless Madison officials agree to rezone it. But borough officials don’t support developing the forest, Conley said.

“It’s our goal to preserve the forest,” Conley said, adding that he wants Madison to purchase the property from the university using local and state funds. “For a very long time, it was preserved because of the commitment of the university alone. Obviously, they are in a position that they can’t do that anymore.”

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

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