By Marina Rubina
“We Are Fully Built-out” Ordinance # 2019-2
On Monday 02/25 the Princeton Council will hold a public hearing about the proposed ordinance eliminating Proportional or Adjusted Floor Area Ratio (F.A.R.) for undersized lots. This ordinance is being proposed to “maintain neighborhood character.” It has not been mentioned, however, that the maximum allowed home sizes will be reduced below the size of many existing homes. Making a large portion of existing buildings “non-conforming” may help discourage tear-downs, but it will also prohibit additions, require a zoning variance for every exterior modification and effectively designate the center of town “completely built-out”.
- Floor Area Ratio is the total area of a building divided by the area of the lot on which it is built expressed as a percentage.
- Maximum allowable F.A.R is a common zoning tool for controlling the size of development.
- The town has been divided into zones loosely based on density: smaller lots in the center and larger lots further away.
- The F.A.R. is higher in the center of town to allow reasonably sized structures to be built on smaller lots and becomes smaller as the lots get larger.
- Unfortunately, Princeton’s zones do not correspond to the existing fabric of neighborhoods, creating many “undersized” lots. There are often whole neighborhoods located in zones where the required lot size is twice the size of a typical lot.
- The current zoning code for many years has included a “proportional or adjusted F.A.R.” formula to help alleviate problems created by overlaying suburban zoning over denser neighborhoods.
To provide a real life example, I gathered data from the tax assessor’s office for two streets: Western Way and Leigh Avenue. Both of these streets are at the border of former Township and Borough and have visually consistent neighborhood character. The data included 101 homes, 97 of which are on undersized lots, most of them about half the required size.
I have graphically represented the data. Some notes about the graphs:
- The orange area shows the existing F.A.R., while the blue indicates the maximum allowed F.A.R., including the proportional/adjusted formula;
- The blue area above the orange area indicates the “area of opportunity” — additions or possibly larger homes that could be built under the current zoning rules;
- In many cases the existing homes already exceed the maximum allowed size (built before current zoning);
- The red line indicates the “base F.A.R.” without the proportional adjustment. This will be the new maximum if the ordinance passes on Monday.
It is clear from the data that the new ordinance will reduce the allowable size of structures below what is already built. Although this may be viewed by some as a great deterrent to tear-downs, it will have the following consequences:
- Since most of the homes on these undersized lots will be deemed “too large,” no additions will be possible.
- Making existing buildings on undersized lots “non-conforming” will trigger the need for a variance for all exterior alterations, such as changing a window. The backlog at the zoning board AND financial impact on homeowners with the smallest/undersized lots is hardly fair or desirable;
- This rule will make practically all buildings in the center of Princeton too large; thus, declaring the center of town fully built-out.
By declaring our town fully built-out, the council is sending a clear message that we are already the best we can be, leaving no room for improvement. Is this the Princeton of the Future we want?
Princeton just hired a new staff planner. Could we not rush this ordinance full of unintended consequences, and let the new planner take a fresh look? Could we set goals and let him suggest updates to the zoning code to better reflect our existing neighborhoods AND plan for the future? Several ideas came out of the work done by consultants in the Neighborhood Character study in 2017-18. There was a proposal to create a sliding scale for F.A.R. based on the actual lot area. Or, possibly something similar to Lawrence township’s linking size of homes to prevailing homes in the neighborhood.
As we think about what “Princeton of the Future” will look like, I hope we agree that maintaining neighborhood character is important, but we also desperately need to improve our town’s walkability, sustainability and affordability. Passing an ordinance that declares the town center built-out hardly seems like the right solution.