As you might recall, about seven or more months ago variances were sought from the Princeton Zoning Board for 23 Leigh Avenue in the Witherspoon-Jackson Historic District. The variances sought would have permitted the sale of both the main living units and the accessory dwelling unit to separate people. The applicant also wanted a variance so that neither unit would have to be occupied by the owner. The zoning board turned the applicant down. The applicant then sued the town.
Then the town revised the regulation to eliminate the requirement that one unit be owner-occupied, but kept the rule that the whole property must be owned by one owner. Unfortunately, the council has now introduced a new revision to the accessory unit regulation that would allow accessory dwelling units to be owned by other parties. The council is holding a hearing on this proposed change tongiht, Aug. 24 at 7pm via Zoom.
This change is a very bad idea, particularly for historic districts. The change is not in the interests of the town and the development and preservation of its neighborhoods. I am also concerned that the public is not aware that the elimination of the common ownership requirement is being included in an agreement to resolve the claims against the municipality and the Zoning Board of Adjustment in a lawsuit filed by the Applicant earlier this year (23 Leigh LLC v. Princeton Zoning Board of Adjustment et al., Docket No. MER-L-46-20). Council’s vote implements this agreement, which impacts the entire town.
The Deterioration of Neighborhoods
One of my greatest concerns regarding this ordinance amendment is focused on the deterioration of neighborhoods because of the ownership separation of accessory dwelling units from the main housing unit. This will impact every neighborhood, including my own neighborhood, the Walnut-Cuyler-Dempsey neighborhood. There are many legal issues and enforcement difficulties. A condominium association of just two members often fails. How will we ensure that there will be funds to fix the roof? For separate accessory dwelling units, separating the ownership of small properties from the mother property will mean that neighbors will have less influence in getting neighborhood cooperation and governmental help in dealing with deteriorating properties.
As an example, for many years my husband and I mowed a neighbor’s deteriorating property after the owner was taken to a nursing home. I had known her as a child. Her children had grown up with me. Imagine the complications if tucked into her yard had been an accessory dwelling unit sitting empty, or if there had been a condo within the main part of the house. When she died her nephew, as a single owner on behalf of her estate, sold the property and the house was torn down and replaced.
Impact on Historic Districts
Separating the ownerships of accessory dwelling Units in historic districts will have a particularly deleterious impact on our historic districts. Here is why. Owners of historic properties by and large are very concerned about the preservation of the entire property based on the care they have for the historic importance of their property, and/or upon the contribution their property makes to the neighborhood context. Separating the ownership of accessory dwellings units from these owners, who really care about the historic importance of the overall property, will very often condemn the accessory dwelling units to new owners who are not committed to the historical importance or the historical context of the main dwelling or the district as a whole. This is reality. This ordinance will lead to the deterioration of historic districts.
Legal Problems and a Violation of Best Planning Practices
Dividing a property to allow for the sale of an accessory dwelling unit also creates tremendous legal and zoning problems. Such subdivisions will very often create difficult condominium legal definitions, or potentially nonconforming lots that will create enormous planning headaches and inequities. This cannot be good planning practice. And I am surprised that this has not weighed more greatly on council members. This applies to condos within the main building, as well as separate accessory dwelling units not physically connected to the main house. A question will be is the accessory dwelling unit including the land below it or not? And what is the responsibility of the landowner for maintaining the additional accessory unit sitting on it? And as described above, there are real legal and practical problems from condo associations.
These configurations also will shake up the application of parking requirements. Moving forward with this change, on this basis alone, would take Princeton down a rabbit hole, and on this basis, alone, should be rejected by the council.
I recall a situation just a few years ago when the Planning Board was asked to approve a subdivision with a zig zag property line, required to meet the minimum lot width. My distinct recollection was that the planning board lawyer at the time advised board members to vote for approval, based I think on a past one-time approval that did involve a zig zag line (also called a zipper), as well as a threat that the applicant would sue if not approved. A member of the planning board took the position that the planning board should not be bullied but should focus on good planning practices. With the leadership of this member, who was new to the board, the board voted not to approve. The applicant sued as expected. The Town won in court. And this challenge to the integrity of the town fabric stopped. I’d like to see that same leadership and belief in our town and in good planning practices prevailing now.
Lowering the Cost of Housing is Pure Myth
The argument that allowing accessory dwelling units to be sold to others would lower the cost of housing is pure myth and developer spin. We all might wish it were true but the purpose of developers is to make money, not to provide moderately priced housing.
If you look at the two units constructed several years ago on Quarry Street, these units were priced for an upscale market and sold way above what any local person could afford.
And when it comes to rents, with the current need for rental properties in Princeton, many of the accessory dwelling unit ownership opportunities will be taken up by investors looking to charge high rents. This is the market that the architect/investor pushing for this ordinance is aiming for – the developer is in this to make money, not to help out potential moderate income homeowners.
In addition, in spite of complaints by renters, my observation over the years has been that owners with accessory dwelling Units have kept rents in check, relative to what they could have been, because landlords, when they live on the premises, know that renting their unit comes with a level of oversight from having the landlord living next door. From my own experience this is very effective in dampening rents where there are accessory dwelling units rented out. The proposed ordinance will raise the cost of housing, not lower it.
So far as the concerns brought up by graduate students on the cost of housing, we need to know more about this problem and find out more how other universities have solved the problem. Yale University has a housing bureau to help students find housing with affordable rents. I would recommend discussions with Princeton University specifically on this problem. As I have said, I don’t believe that the proposed ordinance would help in any way.
The net effect of the proposed ordinance will be higher purchase prices, and higher rents.
The Current Ownership System has Worked Well
The current system has served Princeton very well over the years. Ownership of accessory dwelling units should remain with a single owner overseeing the activities of the renters in the accessory unit, helping to control everything from noise to objects littering the yard, as landlords often do, particularly when they also live on the property. Having the landlord right there has been a tremendously successful way of maintaining the quality of Princeton’s housing stock and the quality of neighborhood life. Recent council action has eliminated the on-site owner resident. We should think long and hard about allowing different parties to own accessory dwelling units on the same property.
Withstanding Law Suits and the Public Process
The proposed change apparently was initiated after a legal challenge by a single developer. We should not be afraid of threats of litigation when we believe that a developer is wrong, and we should not capitulate to the “advice” of an applicant’s attorney. We should fight for what we believe and let the courts sort out Princeton’s prerogatives under the law.
Further, I am concerned that the public is not aware that the elimination of the common ownership requirement is being included in an agreement to resolve claims against the municipality and the zoning board of adjustment in the lawsuit filed by the Applicant earlier this year (23 Leigh LLC v. Princeton Zoning Board of Adjustment et al., Docket No. MER-L-46-20). Council’s vote implements this agreement, which impacts the entire town.
The timing of this discussion related to the future of Princeton is unfortunate since it is happening at the height of the summer months and during a pandemic. The subject was added to the Planning Board’s agenda just a few days before its meeting on Aug. 20, without the usual notice period. The historic preservation commission also has been asked to look at this and deserves time to do so.
My concern is that the the council has already made up its mind in its desire to end a lawsuit. I understand that the town has been given a deadline by the developer. Instead there should be healthy community discussion on the merits of this ordinance change. I ask the council not to approve this proposed ordinance.