Planet Princeton

Princeton officials will attempt to tackle teardown issues by changing zoning regulations

A couple recently purchased a home on Moore Street in Princeton and decided to tear down the existing three-bedroom, 1,388 square-foot house and replace it with a larger home with an attached garage at the front of the building. The proposal caused an uproar in the neighborhood, with some residents voicing their opposition to the plan to public officials, arguing that the home would not fit in with the neighborhood. The zoning board was slated to review the proposal last week, but the meeting was canceled and it appears that the owners may be changing their plans because of the controversy.

Teardowns have been a growing source of contention in Princeton for the past decade in an affluent and desirable community where land is often worth more than the structure that is sitting on it.

A more modest home is razed and replaced with a larger house with modern amenities that can sell for more money, or is cheaper to build than renovating the existing building.

Critics say that such teardowns are changing the character of entire neighborhoods — dwarfing other homes on the block, driving up housing prices, and causing spikes in property assessments.

Perhaps no other feature of many of the new homes is disliked more than large garages, which often replace front porches that were once the anchor of social activity for some neighborhoods.

In some communities like Jersey City, Portland, Maine and St. Paul, Minn., officials have enacted moratoriums on building demolitions in an attempt to provide a cooling-off period and give civic leaders proper time to assess their land-use and zoning policies. Some towns have tried to address the teardown issue by placing limits on building heights, lot coverage, and setbacks. Another approach in some communities has been education, with citizens forming advocacy groups that work to promote alternatives to teardowns.

In Princeton, officials created a “neighborhood character and zoning Initiative” to review zoning and come up with potential solutions to the teardown issue and other zoning and development issues. As a result of the initiative, some building code policies, guidelines and regulations are slated to be changed in an attempt to preserve the town’s traditional character.

Princeton resident Jim Constantine reviews proposed zoning changes at a public meeting on April 11.

Jim Constantine, a principal at the planning and design firm Looney Ricks Kiss, presented  recommendations for zoning changes related to issues identified in the initiative at a special meeting in early April.

The recommendations cover everything from the impervious surface on lots, the height of buildings, and height-to-setback ratios to undersized lot exemptions, lot grading, air conditioning units and generators, trees, landscaping, house orientation, the location of driveways, and, of course the size and location of garages. The initiative does not address regulating or restricting the demolition of houses.

Under the proposed regulations, a one- or two-car garage facing the street would be required to be recessed behind the foremost portion of the house a minimum of 16 feet, not counting porches and stoops. The garage would not be allowed to exceed 50 percent of the overall width of the house and would not be allowed to be more than 25 feet wide. Any garage for three or more cars would be required to be located so it is facing the side or rear of the property and not the street. For corner lots a one- or two-car garage would be allowed to face the side or rear of the property or the side street, with approval of the municipal zoning officer, and the garage would be required to be recessed behind the nearest portion of the house by a minimum of eight feet, not including porches and stoops.

New garages would not be allowed to jut out at the front of the home and would be required to be set back from the front of the building.

On lots a half acre or less in size, the house and front entrance would be required to be oriented to face toward the street and the sidewalk.

Walkways would be required to be located on a property to facilitate pedestrian access between the front entrance of the house and the public sidewalk, unless there is no public sidewalk along the front of the property, the front yard setback is greater than 75 feet, the property has a u-shaped driveway, or the property has a motorcourt garage.

Front yard parking would be required to be set back a minimum of 25 feet from the street line. All paved improvements within the front yard area, including the driveway and all walkways but  excluding  porches and stoops, would not be allowed to exceed 65 percent of the required impervious coverage percentage for the lot.

To encourage developers to build houses with front and side porches, officials are proposing new floor area ratio and impervious coverage exemptions as incentives. Constantine told the room full of residents, architects and developers at the April 11 meeting that the exemptions are a trade off that would encourage people to build driveways that extend further into lots. The incentives would encourage front porches and make the streetscapes more walkable. 

Non-enclosed one-story porches, porticos, stoops and entrance platforms up to 200 square feet that are located on the front exterior wall of the house facing the street or on the side exterior wall of the house facing the side lot line would be exempt from floor area ratio and impervious surface coverage calculations. Attached or detached garages up to 300 square feet where the majority of the garage is located behind the rear wall of the house would also be exempt if the garage is one story and is not higher than 15 feet.

Property owners of existing lots would no longer be forced to seek variances for lot area, lot width and lot depth since those are requirements out of their control and are often approved by the zoning board. Property owners with existing non-conforming side yard setbacks would be exempted for additions if the addition does not create any new non-conforming conditions.

While many residents at the meeting applauded the potential changes, they worried that the new regulations won’t help middle class and upper middle class residents afford to remain in Princeton. Residents refer to those citizens as the disappearing middle or the missing middle. Some residents want the town to loosen zoning regulations to allow for accessory dwellings and tiny houses in order to provide more options for the middle class in Princeton.

Resident Scott Sillars spoke during public comment at the meeting, urging officials to act on the recommendations as soon as possible. “It’s a great plan, but right now it’s just plan,” he said of the recommendations. “They need to be drafted into ordinances. While that is happening, this (development) will go on and accelerate. Builders will know their day is up. There was a discussion about a moratorium on teardowns before. I was told it is not possible…But can we lay down the gauntlet and say no more teardowns at this point — we’ll see you in court? Jersey City did that.”

Mayor Liz Lempert told the crowd that Jersey City is being sued because of the moratorium. The mayor of Jersey City signed an executive order on March 29 enacting a six-month moratorium on demolition permits. A week later, four property owners filed a lawsuit challenging the moratorium. “They have a higher tolerance for fighting things like that in court,” Lempert said of Jersey City.

At the Princeton Council meeting last Monday, Business Administrator Marc Dashield said the governing body likely will approve the new zoning regulations over the next two months.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

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