Update on Princeton Residential Zoning Task Force

The issue of teardowns in residential neighborhoods has become one of the hottest topics during the campaign season, with the Democratic and Republican primaries tomorrow. Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert and Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller issued the following letter Monday morning regarding a new neighborhood zoning committee and the hiring of a consultant:

The Princeton Council has launched an initiative to address the spate of teardowns and out-of-scale, out-of-place new construction occurring in many neighborhoods throughout town. As members of the Planning Board subcommittee tasked with spearheading this comprehensive review and revision of our residential zoning, we would like to update the community on the effort and provide an overview of the process. The initiative will depend on robust public engagement and citizen input, and as we move deeper into the process we will be setting up a website to keep the community informed and engaged. We will also be seeking input from residents through neighborhood meetings and town-wide meetings.

In May we retained the consulting firm RBA Group to help guide us through the process, and on May 18th we held our first organizing meeting to set the schedule and next steps. The Council decided to hire an outside consultant because the option of having our planning staff overhaul the zoning regulations was not feasible except as a long term project, and the growing pace of change in our neighborhoods requires an expedited response. After interviewing several consultants, we chose the RBA Group because they will be able to bring perspective and sensitivity to our challenges through their experience in working with other communities, as well as their depth of expertise in analyzing the economic and environmental impact of changing regulations that will help to inform our deliberations.

The consultants will be documenting neighborhood characteristics and outcomes of recent residential development and identifying areas of Princeton’s neighborhoods that share common characteristics and attributes. Based on the analysis they will recommend short term and long-term policy and regulatory actions. The recommendations may include additions or changes to zoning ordinances, site plan review ordinances, enforcement standards, and the master plan.

We are striving for as much public input as possible from residents, our most important stakeholders. We will also be seeking input from developers, real estate agents and others with a stake in the process. We feel including everyone will result in the best outcome.

In addition to the more structured avenues for communication, we welcome residents to contact us directly with questions and concerns by email at llempert@princetonnj.gov and jcrumiller@princetonnj.gov.

We are hopeful that this initiative will result in land use controls that contribute to the enhancement of our tree-lined, walkable streets and development that honors existing neighborhood contexts, and we look forward to the work ahead.

Mayor Liz Lempert
Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller


  1. Many, many thanks for taking on this issue; cheers from a 40-year resident. The avalanche of huge (and often ugly) McMansions directly threatens the very qualities that have made Princeton so attractive for so long. For example: 90 wild acres off Herrontown Road, a beautiful and important jewel of the Princeton Ridge, may soon be McMansionized by a well-known local developer–despite the flooding and property damage that decision would inflict on hundreds of neighboring homeowners. A wise and foresighted local government would find a way to make that land into a public asset, to be enjoyed by all. That the Princeton Council is willing to discuss the plague of McMansions elsewhere in town is heartening and commendable. A moratorium on supersized housing would be one welcome move. Take a look at Zillow listings for 08540; our area is clearly swamped already with enormous houses that no one wants.

  2. Please keep in mind that at a time where (1) private pensions are a thing of the past, (2) public pensions are being threatened by incompetent (and untruthful) State leaders, (3) the equity markets are a huge bubble waiting to burst and (4) the Social Security funds consist of one humongous IOU, the equity in peoples’ houses constitute the majority of their retirement fund.

    Accordingly, public officials should act very carefully when considering any actions that would jeopardize the market value of these properties.

    It’s essentially all we have left.

    1. The Social Security trust fund is made up of one of the safest investments on earth, US treasury bonds which earn interest. Millions of Americans own US treasury bonds. Many foreign countries own Treasury bonds because of their value. They are backed by the full faith and credit of the US government, the nation itself. It is so disingenuous to mock the SS trust fund as consisting of IOUs, implying that they are a worthless joke. The SS trust fund has a value of about $2.7 trillion.

      1. It’s not arguable that the government has taken SS payments and used them to pay general obligations. In their place are IOUs. Moreover, and more to my point, there are real concerns as to the government’s future ability to make SS transfer payments when due and as envisioned for and promised to the working people who paid into the system. A bi-partisan commission was convened by President Obama in 2010 to study the issue (among other things.) The good and sensible recommendations have been ignored.

        1. The SS trust fund is made up of treasury bonds that earn interest and which are backed by the full faith and credit of the US government. These treasuries are just as valid as our currency. Just as valid as the dollars in your wallet. SS is not in crisis and some minor tweaks would fix any shortcomings in the trust fund in 2033. Even after 2033 (IF nothing is done), SS could still pay 78% of benefits. But something can be done, such as eliminate the SS wage tax cap or raise it significantly and problem solved for generations. Are you telling me that the savings bonds which millions of Americans own are worthless IOUs? Many millionaires and billionaires are invested heavily in savings bonds which you claim are worthless IOUs. Ha, ha, ha.

          1. I didn’t say or claim they were worthless bro. Stay on topic. Talk about a red herring.

  3. Gee, interesting timing as Planet points out. Has nothing to do with the primary tomorrow. Too bad this is what it takes them to act.

  4. From my perspective the current zoning regs are restrictive to the point that they pretty much freeze your home (or at least the front of it) in amber. Particularly if you own a house on a smaller lot without much wiggle room on your setbacks.

    Making any significant change, like adding a covered front porch, or an extra parking spot (because half the town is banned from parking on the street in front of their home overnight) is pretty much impossible to do without a variance, which is pretty much impossible to get.

    Whether or not this was the intent.. it creates an environment where tearing down and rebuilding is the easiest way to conform to the regulations.

    I share Robert Dana’s concern that this may negatively impact current home-owners’ property values. But even worse, it will do so without doing anything to improve the lots of those of us on more modest lots, not looking to totally knock down our homes.

    So everybody loses except for the Zoning Board, which is ceded more power, and of course, the consultants whom essentially are being funded by tax payer dollars to come up with new ways to curtail tax payer rights.

    This is progressive government?

  5. Be careful what you wish for because, perhaps, more and stricter zoning laws of the type we already have aren’t the answer. I think they are actually exacerbating the problem by creating more situations that require a variance. Princeton is full of pre-existing, but now non-conforming properties that could no longer be built under the present rules. Yet many of these properties are exactly the type of development most people would welcome. We don’t need more laws until we have a more benevolent, resident friendly approach to granting variances.

    The problem starts with zoning laws and enforcement hurdles that prevent existing homeowners from making the kind of additions and changes that allow a house to grow organically and that have, in the past, created the streetscapes we are so fond of today. By the time a homeowner gains an adequate understanding of all the zoning laws (with the help of attorneys, architects, contractors and the zoning office), files all the paperwork, presents and defends all the plans, makes all the suggested changes, pays all the bills, and, worst of all, attends all the hearings (where they listen to their neighbors vent their opinions as though they weren’t actually going to continue to be neighbors), even if they win, it seems better in retrospect to simply move. After all, who wants to come home to a place where you have experienced so much frustration and ill will? Better to move to a house that meets your new needs than to make thoughtful changes to the one you already love.

    Developers, and many home buyers who do not want to seek variances to get what they prefer, do not face these same constraints. They do not fall in love with the house, only the land and the laws that allow them to manipulate it. They are in the business. It takes little for them to interpret the constraints and then maximize the square footage within the existing zoning laws. Who cares if the design and proportion aren’t pleasing, and who cares what the neighbors think–first of all, the neighbors won’t be asked, and second of all, either the developer won’t be living there or the feeling of a neighborhood wasn’t important to them anyway.

    Tightening-up the zoning laws won’t prevent this. Unimaginative boxes come in all shapes and sizes. The aesthetics police won’t help this either, because it was more the aesthetic indignation of the neighbors than the 5 feet of encroachment into the setback that made that variance so hard to get in the first place.
    Then there is “Historic Preservation.” We have unwittingly become so self-involved that, often, our efforts are no longer aimed at preserving important reminders of our history and best examples of the past. They are aimed at preserving everything–a visual monument to ourselves for future generations to endure, whether it works for them or not. First we decide change must stop, and then we dig through archives until we find some “justification” for our goal. We pay “experts” to craft reports that elevate our trivial-in-the-larger-scheme-of-history finds to something worthy of local indignation.

    Cynical, you might say? If preserving and honoring significant history is the primary and altruistic goal of our preservation efforts, why did it take so long for it to occur to anyone that the Witherspoon Jackson Neighborhood should be a historic district, and why was it proposed as a means to preserve affordable housing? Ironically, throughout most of Princeton’s Historic Districts, just the streetscape is preserved, as though the bulk of history took place within that thin veneer. By the time we are done preserving all we so righteously believe must be preserved, future generations, like others seeking variances, will have to move elsewhere to make their own mark on the world. Then Princeton can become a ghost town that the elements scrub clean and the cycle of slow destruction by well-meaning, but flawed zoning can begin again.

    By the way, Eisgruber has suggested the possibility of tearing down Baker Rink, the second oldest collegiate hockey rink in the country, to make way for the next residential college. Shouldn’t that be preserved?

  6. Nobody needs a 5000-square-foot house. Enough. If the Council doesn’t move, soon, Princeton will look like the Hamptons. Also, watch what happens with those 90 open acres off Herrontown Road next week at the ZARC meeting…unless I am very wrong about this town and the money that runs it, the Lanwin Corporation (a/k/a Bryce Thompson’s clan, the top predators of Central Jersey development) will easily get their way, and the last major open space on the Princeton Ridge will end up massively McMansionized. What’s that–hundreds of neighboring homeowners will suffer significant flooding and runoff? Habitat for over a dozen threatened and endangered species will be destroyed? A rare old-growth forest bulldozed? Colonial and Native American sites erased? This acreage could be the capstone of a magnificent greenway, running from the crest of Mount Lucas all the way to the lake and connecting with the D&R lands beyond. Public paths, public woods, public benefits–exactly what the Master Plan calls for. Lanwin promises open space…and makes no provision for public access. Charming. The Lanwin decision will show all of us what Princeton’s government really stands for–preserving the best of Princeton for posterity, or knuckling under to developer pressure. I’m betting that the McMansions get built…and stand empty. Such a shame. Such a waste. And such a betrayal of the public trust.

    1. Lempert & Crumiller write: “We will also be seeking input from developers, real estate agents, and others with a stake in the process. We feel including everyone will result in the best outcome.” Hmmmmm…. The best outcome? For whom? Let’s hope any input that affects the outcome comes only from those in the commercial & private sector who actually LIVE & vote in the municipality of Princeton

      1. A big yes to that. I’ve lived here, Borough and Township, since 1976. The real stakeholders in the McMansion debate are long-time residents and long-time taxpayers…the ones who hold this place together. The ones being relentlessly squeezed out of a town they love. Not the realtors. Not the developers. Not the entitled rich. And I would also like, very much, to know precisely which developers and real estate firms have donated major money to Council candidates.

    2. What rattlesnakes are in our area? Google only shows the timber rattlesnake as local to New Jersey and they are not supposed to be found in our area.

      1. The NJDEP says: “found in isolated, hilly areas of Hunterdon and Somerset”; the Mercer/Somerset line forms the border of the isolated, hilly property in question. Talk to local landscapers who work along upper Herrontown Road: they’ve seen plenty, rattlers, copperheads, bull snakes, black racers. I’d worry more about venomous developers, however.

    3. one-level dwellings require more land space. Multi-story dwellings should be encouraged to better utilize limited acreage. One can build modest, non-McMansion two story dwellings and we should.

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