November’s hot topic could have been parking (the new meters arrived), the election of two newcomers to the Board of Education and the imminent vote on a scaled-down budget referendum, or the police (the final report on the Panera Bread shooting has been issued). But it turned out to be a subject normally so mundane that the board administering it is almost never covered by the local media (other than this newspaper). So herewith a news summary:

Parking

With the onset of the new smart meters, Mayor Liz Lempert reported hearing from some people frustrated in attempts to use credit cards — Discover and American Express cards did not work initially, but that’s been fixed. Possibly for that reason in the first few weeks far more people used coins in the meters than credit cards — so much so that at least one meter was overflowing with coins. But officials expect that ratio to reverse itself soon. And presumably more people will take advantage of the smart phone app at a fee of 35 cents for each parking transaction (though the app will eventually allow you to recover some of your unused meter time).

The system has also been tweaked to permit pre-payment beginning at 7 a.m., which is now possible at all meters except those that only allow 30 minutes. So if you are coming into town for an early morning coffee before a mid-morning meeting, you can fill up your meter at 7, and then park your car from 9 to noon at a three-hour meter (at a rate of $1.50 per hour).

The big difference in the new meters is that they charge more at most every location (though still less than the Palmer Square-managed garages). The public will deliver the final review of the meters (and the town promises to review the usage and charges in six months and then annually after that). The Echo also welcomes your feedback. E-mail hastings@princetoninfo.com.

School votes

1 down, 1 to go. With two newcomers elected to the school board, Daniel Dart and Brian McDonald, and only one of two incumbents reinstated, Betsy Baglio, the Princeton Public Schools now turns its attention to the referendum on Tuesday, December 11, to decide on a $27 million bond to provide safety, security, and HVAC upgrades to various schools and four additional classrooms at Princeton High School.

The bond is small fraction of the $130 million bond proposed earlier in the year, which attracted widespread opposition. The scaled down version has supporters and opponents — see letters on page 4.

For those interested in more information, the board is hosting tours of the high school Saturdays, December 1 and 8, at 9:15 and 10:30 a.m. A “meet and greet” will be Tuesday, December 4, at 8:30 a.m. at the board office at 25 Valley Road.

The Panera shooting

When a 56-year-old Lawrenceville man, Scott L. Mielentz, was shot to death inside Panera Bread on Nassau Street on March 20, there was no question who shot him. It was the police, drawn into a four-hour standoff with Mielentz, who had a recent history of emotional problems.

But could the authorities have apprehended the victim without deadly force? In a lengthy profile of Princeton police chief Nick Sutter published in the May issue of the Echo, the question was raised as an example of the challenges that can be faced by police even in a quiet town like Princeton. At the time Sutter said he was confident his officers had done what they could do save the man’s life. But he welcomed the state attorney general’s investigation, mandated in the event of a police shooting and organized independently of the normal state police chain of command.

That report, released in November, concluded that “the undisputed facts indicated the use of force was justified under the law. The investigation included numerous witness interviews, video of the shooting, forensic analysis of the scene, and other evidence.” Among other highlights:

“Less than half an hour before Mielentz drew the gun in Panera, the Princeton Police received a 911 call” from a friend of Mielentz “who reported that Mielentz sent him a text message indicating that Mielentz was going to end his life. Efforts by the police to locate Mielentz were already underway when the 911 call from Panera was received. In addition, a female friend later told police that she received a text shortly after 9 a.m. that morning from Mielentz in which he indicated he was ready to ‘depart this life.’ Mielentz called that woman during the standoff and told her he wanted the police to shoot and kill him.

“A Princeton officer was the first police officer to arrive at Panera.” Mielentz “pointed his gun at her and she retreated without firing . . . Other Princeton police officers entered the rear of the restaurant and tried to talk to Mielentz, who responded by saying ‘Shoot me, just shoot me.’ Mielentz told the officers that he was in pain and that the government had cut off his OxyContin. He falsely claimed he was a Vietnam veteran and had killed 1,000 people during the war.”

“ . . . The shooting occurred at 2:54 p.m. In the final moments before the shooting, Mielentz walked out of the dining area he had occupied and faced the [SWAT team] members and negotiators while holding the gun pointed forward at a downward angle at his waist. . . . Witnesses reported that, as he had done before, Mielentz counted down from five. Mielentz began to raise the gun hesitantly as officers pleaded with him not to do it. He then raised the gun up so that it was pointing at the [police officers] and negotiators.”

Two state troopers, William Kerstetter and Joseph Trogani, then fired five rounds from their M4 rifles, fatally wounding Mielentz. The police determined that Mielentz was armed with a Crosman PFM BB pistol, although all officers on the scene “believed throughout the standoff that it was an actual firearm.”

Neighborhood zoning

In what turned out to be the hot topic of the month, Princeton Council voted unanimously to adopt new neighborhood residential zoning standards that would make new houses in Princeton look, well, like houses as opposed to industrial warehouses or space ships or appendages to multi-car garages that face the street — snout houses, as they are called.

And then, in what should be heart-warming news for anyone living on a small, nonconforming lot in town who might want to add a dormer to a second story bedroom or turn the unused space above the garage into another bedroom, Council approved an amendment that would enable such homeowners to make various alterations or enlargements without requiring zoning variances, “provided that all other bulk requirements” are complied with.

The underlying idea of the amendment is to promote affordable housing, encouraging improvements to the current housing stock without dragging owners through the always time-consuming and usually expensive (if you hire professionals to do the legwork) appeal process to obtain a zoning variance.

But that amendment turned out to be hot news. More than a dozen people showed up at the Council meeting, and most lamented the potential loss of zoning board review of impending projects, and the accompanying notification of neighbors that is part of the process. Part of the concern was that the amendment referred to any vacant lot as well as any existing permitted single-family dwelling on a non-conforming lot. Residents worried that the language would pave the way for more tear-downs and out-of-place McMansions rising in their place. Even though the new neighborhood standards would seem likely to discourage this, Council nonetheless modified the amendment to exclude the reference to vacant lots. It passed unanimously.

At meeting’s end Mayor Lempert noted that this is only part 1 of the zoning discussion. Council next will address ways to increase the stock of middle-range housing through the creation of “granny flats” and garage apartments in existing neighborhoods. Zoning — a trending topic.

This article was originally published in the December 2018 Princeton Echo.