Proposed zoning ordinance revision will encourage teardowns in Princeton

To the Editor:

A proposed revision to the zoning ordinance to be considered by Princeton Council at its Monday, November 19 meeting will clear the way for redevelopment of undersized lots without zoning board review of the impact of the proposed development on the visual environment of the neighborhood or the value of neighborhood properties. It will also have the unintended consequence of encouraging teardowns. We urge council to reject this change.

Our opposition to this zoning revision is not to suggest that the zoning board may use its powers to deny any development on lots made too small by subsequent zoning changes. Rather, the development of these lots should require presentation of plans for review by the board adequate to ensure that the size and layout of the proposed structure and its positioning on the lot will not adversely affect the character of the neighborhood or the intent and purpose of the zone plan. This review is currently required of the board under its variance powers, and these powers should not be relinquished.

Proponents of the revision argue that when a proposed new structure complies with all setback and other bulk requirements except for lot size, it should be automatically approved. Not so. The yard setbacks, height and other bulk requirements affecting the property were designed on the assumption that the affected lot was a larger lot. Development of the lot consistent with the streetscape and proportionate to other structures in the neighborhood, depending on the circumstances, may therefore require variances from other zoning requirements to ensure compatibility. Each development should be considered in relation to statutory variance criteria and not simply passed through. With specific reference to the structure as proposed, the board has the power to disapprove the variance because required criteria have not been met or approve it subject to revisions designed to minimize adverse impacts.

The ordinance as now revised by the planning board would also facilitate teardowns because the proposed waiver of variance review for undersized lots will not be confined to historically undeveloped lots, but could extend to lots an owner or buyer has made vacant by tearing down an existing structure. When the ordinance was introduced, council responded to this concern by limiting the waiver to vacant lots, but the planning board has now recommended undoing this limitation. Long established zoning doctrines, such as denial of variance relief when the claimed hardship is self-created, should not be discarded. Any teardown on an undersized lot should be subject to board review in advance and in tandem with analysis of building plans for the replacement structure.

Walter R. Bliss Jr., Moore Street
Virginia Kerr, Jeffferson Road


  1. I hope the council votes yes. I am supportive of an idividual’s right to build whatever home he desires on his own property. We don’t need a zoning board to provide their subjective opinion.

    1. Your right…we don’t need a zoning board to provide their “subjective opinion” on what you put on your property but your neighbors damn sure should be able to weigh in on and review what you build, and how it will impact their quality of life, property values, sight lines etc…You didn’t just buy a house, or a piece of property…you also bought the “neighborhood”. If you want to build what you want without neighborhood input then go buy
      a farm.

      1. by quality of life, do you mean the feeling you get knowing your neighbors house is newer than yours?

    2. This isn’t about putting up a yurt in the wilderness. Built structures in NJ are weather resistant & costly enough that they stand for 60 to100 years or more. We inherit the past & live with the impact of past actions here. Most NJ residents live in or near buildings planned, constructed, & renovated over time by those who are no longer alive. That makes reasonable codes & ordinances to protect the living are essential. Unregulated environs exist in some areas of the US, but those approaches aren’t likely to take root in populated areas of the the Northeast. We are temporary stewards of something precious.

  2. Hear, hear Walter and Virginia! The character of Princeton’s various neighborhoods has suffered long enough from rampant teardowns and mega additions to existing structures. One of the clear community expressed objectives in reviewing zoning ordinances has been to put a stop to these practices, and at least require neighborhood input before building plans that defy current requirements, i.e. that require variances, are approved.

    A successful community is one that takes into consideration its neighbors. A key function of local government is to mediate property owners’ desires with what makes sense for the community as a whole.

    I urge the Council to vote down this ill conceived plan….. one that will take Princeton backwards in terms of neighborhood character.

  3. Thanks Virginia & Walter. Your desire to protect Princeton homeowners & our built environment is appreciated. The context, fabric & character of our neighborhoods matter. New construction & renovation projects shouldn’t be allowed to reduce the available light, air circulation, natural privacy, economic viability or character of existing homes/hoods.– Princeton’s Tax Assessor has classified some neighborhoods “tear-down” zones, meant to increase town tax revenues by being torn down & gentrified. Council should immediately disclose the identity of those hoods (along with any economic & environmental impact the predatory actions they enable will create) to their existing homeowners. Hard-working taxpayers, living conservatively in older homes, deserve serious protection from the assessor’s valuation padding when new homes appear in their midst and excessive prices are paid. The environment & neighborhoods worthy of protection have been ignored & those big new homes make that statement. — The neighborly community vibe that once defined our town can be revived with consistently resident-friendly, earth-friendly actions. The alternative is loss of livability here. We won’t be able to breathe easily in Princeton’s future, if respect for all life, the earth, and community aren’t central to public policymaking. Modernity and reverence can peacefully co-exist. Honoring the value in both will ensure a better future here for everyone.

  4. I say, let’s try non partisans elections because we are living under a mild dictatorship, when there is one party in power, there are no checks and balances.

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