This article was originally published in the May 2018 Princeton Echo.
When 50 residents or so show up at a zoning presentation, that usually represents bad news of some sort. But last month that many Princeton residents showed up for a presentation on potential zoning changes, and they seemed to walk away with few complaints. The proposed changes, prompted by Princeton’s Neighborhoods and Character Zoning Initiative, a task force created in 2016, would ease zoning restrictions for smaller properties, give owners more leeway to make improvements, incentivize floor plans with porches, limit garage styles and home sizes to better match local tastes, and encourage pedestrian-friendly streets.
The initiative’s goal is to preserve town character, yet the presentation noted that many of Princeton’s existing homes are already out of line with current zoning, particularly on smaller lots. On the whole, many changes would allow owners to make certain improvements without applying for a variance, which can be costly and time-consuming.
According to Jim Constantine of the architectural consulting firm of Looney Ricks Kiss, the firm coordinating the zoning review, many of Princeton’s smallest lots don’t meet the minimum width of 40 feet. Because of this they have small setbacks that make expansion illegal under current zoning. “We had a whole bundle of changes to provide more flexibility for those lots to be more livable and actually allow the regulations to recognize that if someone is in that situation, they have the ability to expand without requiring variance relief,” says Constantine, himself a Princeton resident for nearly 30 years.
One possible expansion might be an addition to the back, like an extra bedroom. The installation of an air conditioning unit, generator, or fuel tank might be exempt from limits on impervious coverage, up to 100 square feet, and such units could be installed as close as three feet from the lot lines.
Another exception to setback limits for all lots would be porches and stoops, as well as front steps leading to the sidewalk. One-story porches could project up to eight feet into the front yard setback and four feet from the back or side setbacks, while front steps could border the sidewalk as long as they didn’t block the right-of-way. As another incentive, floor area ratio and impervious coverage exemptions of 200 square feet would be awarded for porches, stoops, and entrances located on the front and side of homes.
The April 11 meeting was preceded by a similar workshop for builders and architects. The zoning review is being done in two phases. The first phase, focused on individual home size and layout, was discussed at last month’s meeting. The second phase will deal more directly with the town’s overall decline in housing diversity and affordability.
Constantine says the next steps could happen quickly — in weeks, not months. After laws are drafted for phase one, a similar meeting and workshop will be held for phase two changes. “We’re trying to see if we can get some draft ordinances for phase one,” says Constantine. “And then the ‘missing middle’ [housing that falls between single family homes and apartment buildings in scale] will be dealt with, right behind it.”
Constantine also suggested a new incentive for builders and architects to move the dominant garage further back from the street or behind the house altogether. Plans that push the garage to the back could bleed into the setback space on the side and its footprint would not count as impervious coverage or in the floor area ratio up to 300 feet.
On Princeton’s smaller lots the new zoning could allow for taller homes by increasing the setback-to-height ratio. Currently the ratio is three feet in height to every one foot of setback on all lots, though many homes in the borough have just a five-foot setback or less. A 15-foot limit is too short to house two stories — in addition to bringing existing homes back in compliance, this ratio change might increase the density and diversity of housing on narrow lots.
On larger lots the proposed zoning aims to limit the height of new homes. To deter builders from dodging the height limitations by “mounding” soil around a house, so that its height measured from the ground is less than it would be without the new landscaping, the maximum height could be measured from the average level of pre-grade, rather than finished grade, whichever is lower. Further, a site grading plan would need to be submitted and approved.
To create pedestrian-friendly streets, there would be changes to driveways and landscaping. A new driveway apron would have to be narrowed down to one car-width, or 10 feet. Especially in neighborhoods with plenty of pedestrian traffic, these narrowed driveways are safer for the public, according to Constantine. For example, a child biking across a narrow driveway would have less exposure to a car backing out.
As for landscaping, the presentation outlined a need for more trees in front yards and adjacent to streets, especially those that shade the sidewalk and encourage walking. Currently Princeton lacks any kind of shade tree requirement. Developers might soon need a landscaping plan that includes a number of ornamental and shade trees.
Several residents at the meeting raised concerns that a landscaping plan that only requires builders to replace, rather than preserve, old-growth trees was not enough. “Tree discussion also came up in the Hun School neighborhood,” said Mayor Liz Lempert, who also attended the meeting. “They’ve seen a lot of neighborhood character damaged because of the trees. As a rule, as the lots get bigger, it’s the trees that define it [the character] as much as the homes do because [the homes are] back so far. We need to look at this, issue by issue, to see which zones are vulnerable.”
Some residents at the meeting were also dismayed that none of these changes took direct or immediate aim at the trend of “McMansion-ization.” Constantine responded by noting that the zoning proposals do not address teardowns. “We are dealing with what will be built,” he said.
In part it’s because the town lacks authority to pass a blanket moratorium on demolitions, according to Lempert. Such an interim plan has “no chance” because of state regulations, she says. “We have to use the tools that we have. We are committed to moving pretty quickly. A lot of the work we’ve seen here — it’s now just the question of putting it down and writing [the new zoning laws].”
At the builder and architect’s workshop earlier in the day, Constantine said, there was surprisingly little pushback to these changes, acknowledging the value of an out-of-sight garage and supporting the impervious coverage incentive. Some builders even expressed intent to change ongoing plans to comply with the proposed changes before their official adoption.
“They left the session alive and breathing,” Constantine says. “From the builder’s perspective, we’re talking about something that makes them change their model they’ve been using for maybe 15 years. We’re very sensitive to that issue.”
From the Zoning Board
At its regular meeting on April 25, the Zoning Board approved the following applications:
1036 Great Road, Tenacre Foundation, owner. Extension of variance pursuant to 17A-213 and 10B-328.
278-280 Franklin Avenue, Dr. Bruce Jay Berger, owner/applicant. A use variance to permit conversion of a doctor’s office containing an apartment to a two-family dwelling.
132 Elm Road, 132 Elm Associates. LLC/, DJ Noyes, Cummins Associates Inc., applicant. Variance to permit reconstruction/expansion of a stone wall, parts of which will exceed the 6-foot height limitation.
An application to permit an 89-unit assisted living facility on Terhune Road at North Harrison Street was continued to Wednesday, May 23. The applicant is Sunrise Development; owner is George Comfort & Sons Inc.