This year my husband has a one-year faculty fellowship at Princeton University, and our family has been getting to know Princeton and its environs. An early stop for us was the Princeton Battlefield State Park, where General Washington defeated British forces on January 3, 1777, ten days after his famous crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas Day, 1776. Our children were thrilled to learn about Washington’s troops making their way across the field against the Red Coats and that the enmity between the Revolutionaries and the British did not prevent the wounded from both sides from being cared for in one house owned by the Clarke family.
The Princeton Battlefield, we’ve also learnt, is at the center of a controversy now before the Princeton Township’s Historic Preservation Commission. The Institute for Advanced Study, the research institute that was home to Albert Einstein and many other academic luminaries, borders on the Princeton Battlefield State Park. The institute has proposed to build fifteen housing units for its faculty members seven acres of the institute’s land that is immediately adjacent to the battlefield. A local group, the Princeton Battlefield Society, is leading the charge against development of this land. (See map and details.)
The Institute for Advanced Study argues that, in order to maintain its vibrant intellectual community, its faculty must have access to new, affordable housing close to the campus. I can well believe its faculty has a hard time affording housing in Princeton: for an amount roughly equal to the monthly mortgage payment on our four-bedroom house in Annapolis (not a cheap town by national standards), we’re renting a run-down duplex a short walk from the Princeton University campus. It’s a fine arrangement for a year and our young son and daughter are delighted for now to share a bedroom and bunk bed, but I readily understand why institute faculty with families would want help obtaining housing near the institute that would have more than one bathroom and wouldn’t require older kids to share a bedroom.
The Princeton Battlefield Society opposes the development of the institute’s land adjacent to the Princeton Battlefield State Park. The society’s president, Jerry Hurwitz, warns that “a critical piece of land that is necessary for the interpretation and understanding of the Battle of Princeton” will be destroyed. (Read full article here.) Both sides acknowledge uncertainty about what parts of the Battle of Princeton took place on the proposed building site.
This is a classic example of the problem of whether restrictions may be imposed upon owners of private land that, while privately owned, is significant to the public for historical, cultural, or ecological reasons. When are such restrictions justified? And, what compensation—if any—is due to owners for such restrictions? And, is private property antithetical to preservation of important public lands?
Land owners who cannot develop their land because it includes habitat protected by the Endangered Species Act are sometimes eligible for compensation from the public purse. The grounds for this compensation is the Fifth Amendment’s so-called “takings” clause, which declares that “private property shall not be taken for a public use, without just compensation.” As it happens, there’s no comparable program to compensate private property owners such as the Institute who wish to develop land with historical and cultural, rather than environmental, significance.
It would be a true loss for our family and others not to enjoy the whole range now available of the Princeton Battlefield, although I expect that the Institute will be allowed to develop the housing it needs for its faculty.
However, private property rights need not only be a warrant turning battlegrounds and other cultural sites into housing tracts—private property rights can also be used to preserve battlegrounds for future generations. Knowing that the most secure way to prevent development is to own the land, the Civil War Trust purchases Civil War battlefield land in order to preserve it from development. Similar strategies have been adopted in the last few decades by environmental conservation trusts that seek to buy up land with critical habitat and ecosystems. The security of private property rights is a good thing, and it can be harnessed by those who care about our heritage to preserve it for future enjoyment.