Princeton Council delays FAR ordinance until later this month

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The Princeton Council, after it listened to the concerns of residents and architects about a change to Princeton’s land use ordinance that would disallow over-sized houses on undersized lots, decided this past Monday night to delay action until its March 25 meeting.

The Princeton Council was prepared to hold a public hearing and take final action on the ordinance amendment Monday night. The ordinance amendment, which eliminated a provision in the land use ordinance that allowed the practice, was introduced at the council’s Jan. 14 meeting.

The ordinance amendment states that Princeton has received “numerous complaints from the public regarding the proportional increase in the Floor Area Ratio, (FAR)” which affects the maximum square footage of a new house that could be built.

The ordinance amendment also states that eliminating the proportional FAR would “further the goal of maintaining the existing character of Princeton’s residential neighborhoods,” alluding to the practice of tearing down houses and replacing them with larger ones that may not fit in with the rest of the neighborhood.

The rationale for allowing larger houses than would otherwise be permitted on a small lot was to permit house sizes to be uniform throughout a given zoning district. A small house on a small lot could be demolished and replaced by a house that was larger than what would have been permitted.

Princeton Zoning Officer Derek Bridger told the Princeton Council this past Monday night that efforts were made to introduce a similar ordinance in 2015, with the intention of “de-incentivizing” the practice of demolishing houses and replacing them with new ones, most of which are larger than the ones that were torn down. It was never adopted.

Bridger also said the proposed ordinance amendment would give the Zoning Board of Adjustment a tool to deal with the numerous requests for variances on undersized lots – lots that are smaller than the minimum required in each zone. The board handles about 10 to 20 variance requests each year.

While some residents said they were encouraged by the effort to discourage tear-downs, other residents said they were concerned about “unintended consequences” if their house is on an undersized lot.

Some residents said they were concerned about the added cost of applying for a variance to the zoning board if they wanted to add on to their homes – whether it is a bedroom or a bathroom – in addition to the architect’s fee and the construction costs.

Bridger said the cost would be nominal. It would not be necessary to hire an attorney or a planner to appear before the Zoning Board of Adjustment in connection with such an application, he said.

Meanwhile, architects Josh Zinder and Marina Rubina opposed the ordinance amendment. Zinder said the ordinance amendment appears to be targeting the smallest properties, pointing to the “tree streets” neighborhood, which includes Pine, Chestnut and Spruce streets, where the lots are small.

After the public comment portion was closed, several Princeton Council members said they wanted more information before casting a vote. They also expressed concerns about unintended consequences.

Councilman David Cohen, who was ready to vote in favor of the ordinance amendment, said there is concern about the “missing middle” – homes that would be affordable to middle income households. The smaller houses that have been torn down are being replaced with larger, more expensive homes.

Councilman Tim Quinn, who also favored the ordinance amendment, said the builders and architects who favor the proportional FAR that leads to larger houses on smaller lots “appear not to show an understanding of – or appreciation for – the unintended consequences proportional FAR has had in some of our neighborhoods.”

Quinn said that while he agreed with comments that tear-downs are not the enemy and that not every house is worth saving, “builders who use the proportional FAR bonuses create houses that are either out of scale or out of character for the neighborhood.”

Those houses sell for much more than the older houses, which has an impact on the assessed value of the older houses for property tax purposes, Quinn said. The result is that the new houses drive up the assessed value of the older houses, and that means the taxes go up more than they would have otherwise increased.

Quinn acknowledged that while Princeton is growing and changing, “I trust we will continue to do so in a smart way, but also one that does not force out people who have been here awhile.”