Just glance at Princeton’s new zoning code, and you will notice at least one major change. Interspersed between the usual pages of dry, bulleted text, are colorful house diagrams — more like an architect’s sketchbook than your average zoning handbook.
The models show the types of driveways, garages, walkways, facades, and orientations that are acceptable. It’s a shift away from abstract zoning measures, like floor area ratios and minimum yard setbacks, to an approach that focuses on what homes actually look like on their lots.
Adopted unanimously by Princeton’s council in November, the latest zoning reform did more than just tweak traditional measures. For lots under one-half acre in size, the new zoning supplements the existing code with a host of new standards, regulating building elements traditionally left up to developers like home orientation, garage placement, driveway style, and facades. It also grants more flexibility to renovate homes on the town’s smallest lots, mostly located downtown.
In effect, these changes aim to preserve the town’s walkable, neighborhood character and discourage outsized development. Moreover, it signals Princeton’s shift away from traditional zoning methods towards an alternative: form-based code.
Form-based code is different from traditional zoning in its basic approach to shaping development. Traditional zoning divides a town by land-use to control development, applying blanket regulations on what can and can’t be built (maximum heights, minimum setbacks, density limits, etc.) in a particular zone.
Form-based code, on the other end, regulates development by specifying what can and should be built. In Princeton this is a driveway with a narrow opening, a home with its front door oriented to the street, and a walkway leading from the sidewalk to the front door instead of the driveway.
According to council member and architect David Cohen, existing homes shaped the rules of Princeton’s form-based codes, instead of a vision for brand new development like other form-based codes.
“This presented a greater challenge,” said Cohen, “but is also what allows us to bill the changes as ‘preserving neighborhood character.’”
These zoning changes stem from the first half of a comprehensive “Neighborhood Character and Zoning Initiative” that kicked off last January. The initiative’s goal is outlined on the town’s website: “to address the spate of tear-downs and out-of-scale, out-of-place new construction occurring in many neighborhoods throughout town.”
The recent ordinance focuses on regulating new development so it’s not out-of-character. The next half of the initiative will address ways to sustain the affordable housing stock for middle-class families.
So what does this all mean for Princeton homeowners and developers?
For developers building a single-family house on a vacant lot, it creates both carrots and sticks to influence the final result. Most notably, the code outlaws the construction of “snout houses,” with garages that dominate a home’s front facade by protruding towards the street.
Under the new code, street-facing garages must be at least 16 feet behind the front facade. If the garages face away from the main street, they only have to be recessed a minimum of eight feet. And if they’re completely behind the home’s rear wall (the ideal set-up for maintaining pedestrian character), the garages won’t count towards the lot’s impervious coverage limit at all.
Other mandatory changes for new development include a home’s orientation on the lot and private walkways — all requirements focused on a neighborhood’s pedestrian character. For the safety of pedestrians, driveways must be narrow at the property line, under 10 feet, and the front facade of new homes must face the street. If the street has a public sidewalk, a private walkway must run from the sidewalk to the home’s front door. Homes on lots larger than a half acre, or those with U-shaped driveways, are exempt.
The new zoning code also closes a developer’s loophole for building uncharacteristically tall homes. It clarifies how a building’s height is measured to discourage developers from “mounding” dirt on a flat lot to erect taller homes without violating height requirements. If a lot’s average finished grade is higher than its original elevation, the building’s height is measured from the latter.
For homeowners looking to expand or alter an existing home, the new zoning could mean escaping the onus of applying for a zoning variance — a process that involves legal notification of neighbors, extensive forms detailing the nature of the application, and often the hiring of an attorney.
For example, older and smaller properties that pre-date modern zoning regulations might fit snugly into a neighborhood’s character but not comply with current standards regarding area, frontage, width, and depth. Now, some expansion on these undersized lots is possible without a zoning variance — as long as the final building complies with all form-based requirements.
On the town’s smallest lots, renovations that violate yard setback requirements may also be exempt. Under the new code, homes on narrow lots can be enlarged up to the existing yard setback if it meets certain conditions, like sitting at least three feet from the property line. All lots under 6,000 square feet or less than 60 feet wide qualify for this exemption, as do homes in the R-4 borough and R-9 township districts, encompassing most areas of the Witherspoon-Jackson and tree street neighborhoods.
There are other exemptions that apply to all Princeton homes. Porches, A/C units, generators, and fuel tanks are generally exempt from being counted as impervious coverage. Porches, in particular, can now project into yard setbacks, which town officials hope will encourage their construction.
At the November 19 town meeting where the new zoning ordinance was adopted, councilmember Cohen defended these exemptions as an effective way to discourage teardowns.
“We’ve seen a lot of teardowns and the reason is that homeowners in that circumstance are intimidated by the challenge of going for a variance, the expense for going for a variance. So they throw up their hands and find a developer who will just tear down the house because they’re not intimidated by the variance process,” Cohen said.
The exemptions make it less difficult to renovate or expand aging structures — an issue that disproportionately affects homeowners who can only afford older homes on undersized lots, according to Cohen and the town’s consultant, Jim Constantine of the planning firm Looney, Ricks & Kiss on Nassau Street. Chris Consenza of Looney, Ricks also consulted on the project.
“During our analysis of the existing zoning, it became evident that many of Princeton’s more affordable smaller homes located near the center of town were situated on undersized lots with setbacks less than required by current zoning,” Constantine said.
This bundle of exemptions will hopefully detract from the appeal of selling, razing, and replacing, by lowering the bar that residents must hurdle for small-scale renovations — helping “preserve and sustain” this portion of the affordable housing stock, according to Constantine. “It is a waste of their time and taxpayer money to require this type of onerous process when the conclusion is foregone,” Cohen said at the council meeting.
But some residents have been skeptical of this logic. Might freely granting exemptions have the opposite effect, and encourage teardowns instead?
At the November 19 town meeting Princeton residents Walter Bliss and Virginia Kerr spoke against variance exemptions for non-conforming lots — the original draft granted the exemption to any type of work, new construction or renovation of an existing structure.
In response, the clause was amended to exclude new construction. The variance exemption now applies to just renovations on existing homes, though Bliss remains skeptical of the clause altogether. “I think major alterations or major enlargements pose the same threat or similar threat to the character of the neighborhood as new construction,” said Bliss, “if in fact there is the intent to develop a large, imposing structure that wasn’t there before.”
There are also aspects of neighborhood character this new zoning doesn’t address. The original draft recommendations included a section on landscaping and green space, such as regulating the number of trees in the front yard and requiring developers to replace trees that were clear-cut. None of these landscaping requirements made it into the final ordinance, in part due to legal limits.
In New Jersey local zoning laws must walk a fine line between a home’s physical form and its style. Under the state’s land use law, homes outside of historic districts cannot be subject to “site plan” review — a process that regulates style components like the species of allowed trees, signage, and facade details. Interpretation of the state’s land use law varies; some towns consider basic landscaping guidelines to fall under municipal zoning, while others like Princeton, might hold a more conservative view.
Neither does the adoption of this form-based code put to rest the controversy surrounding variance exemptions for non-conforming lots. The town could pass an ordinance in the near future to amend this grandfather clause, according to Cohen.
In fact, a policy encouraging teardowns in certain neighborhoods could result from the next phase of the Neighborhood Character Study. New construction like duplexes replacing single-family homes could diversify Princeton’s housing stock and make it more affordable for middle-class residents. “We might want to encourage teardowns in order to replace single-family homes with two-family homes that fit into the character of the neighborhood,” Cohen said at the council meeting.
“There is a part B of the Neighborhood Character Study which is going to look at density and the possibility of introducing two-family dwellings in neighborhoods where they’re currently not permitted — accessory dwelling units, a lot of things that we’re hoping will address the issue of the ‘missing middle,’” Cohen said.
Princeton’s form-based code is unique in that it applies to lots one half acre or less in the entire town. “In comparison, many other form-based codes are overlays limited to specific areas,” Constantine said, such as historical neighborhoods or downtown districts.
Zoning’s mixed reviews
Princeton’s new zoning initiatives got two public reviews late in February. A Saturday morning meeting of Princeton Future attracted about 100 residents to discuss “form-based” zoning and how it might help new and remodeled houses on smaller lots fit in more harmoniously with their neighbors.
The other, a public hearing at the February 25 Council meeting, addressed a proposed elimination of a provision in the code that enables the construction of larger houses on smaller lots. The proposed change, sought by the town’s zoning office since 2015, is intended to reduce the number of tear downs and McMansion replacements. It was opposed, oddly enough, by a cadre of residents who appeared to be opposed to tear downs and McMansions. Council decided to continue the hearing on Monday, March 25.
As Princeton Future’s Kevin Wilkes explained, the new form-based zoning, which applies to half-acre lots or smaller, uses schematic drawings to depict its requirements instead of written statements. “You’d be surprised how many lawyers can find different meanings in the same sentence,” he said. “A diagram is harder to interpret differently.”
Panelists and some residents looked at form-based zoning as just a beginning. “I think we can do better,” said Kirsten Thoft, the architect and developer. “Energy efficiency, affordability, walkability — none of that has been addressed yet.”
Several people questioned parking requirements. “If we just eliminate parking minimums it would be magical,” said architect Marina Rubina, who suggested property owners pay into an accessibility fund in lieu of providing on-site parking spaces.
A concern raised by Rubina, about how the permitted floor area ratio (FAR) is calculated for houses on small lots, cast a cloud over the proposed revision to that calculation. Currently such houses are permitted to be proportionately larger than those on a larger lot. That has enabled developers to buy small houses and replace them with houses that are built to the upper limit of FAR.
Rubina researched properties on Leigh Avenue and Western Way and found that most every house is larger than the proposed FAR. Without the bonus even the smallest expansion of an existing house would require a zoning variance.
Council still plans to consider creating accessory dwelling units and “granny” flats in existing housing. The zoning drama is not over.
Zoning Board agenda
The following applications were scheduled to be heard at the February 27 Zoning Board meeting (after this edition of the Echo went to press):
394 Ridgeview Road, Ridgeview Properties, owner-applicant. A continuation of a hearing seeking a lot area variance for new single family home.
415 Franklin Avenue, Orit Kendall, owner-applicant. Variances to permit relocation of existing detached garage and construction of a 40-square-foot connection between the garage and the main house.
1107 Great Road, Tal and Esther Kalif, owners-applicants. A hardship variance to permit construction of a new single-family house on a non-conforming lot that does not meet the minimum required lot area.
76 Valley Road, Kirsten Thoft and Ted Nadeau, owners-applicants. Variances for lot width, lot frontage and prevailing front yard setback for new house.
7 Madison Street, Stephen Gilbert and Jenny Hartshorne, owners-applicants. A variance to permit dormer in detached garage.