Princeton officials put hold on oversized homes issue


The Princeton Council has decided to hold off acting on the much-debated change to the land use ordinance that would disallow oversized houses on undersized lots until its April 22 meeting.

Princeton Council was set to act on the amendment to the land use ordinance at its meeting this past Monday, but agreed to continue the public hearing as the town’s planning staff continues to gather information on its implications and possible alternatives.

The ordinance amendment, which has drawn criticism from some residents and praise from others, would eliminate the proportional increase in the Floor Area Ratio (FAR), which affects the maximum square footage of a house that could be built.

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

The rationale for allowing larger houses than would otherwise be permitted on a small lot was to permit house sizes that would 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 allowed.

Princeton’s planning staff, meanwhile, is exploring alternatives to the proposed amendment that would balance property owners’ rights to expand their homes and also slow down the pace of tear-downs. Between 2012 and 2018, 195 houses were demolished. Many were replaced by new houses that were more expensive.

There are also concerns that the new houses in a neighborhood may push up the assessments on the older, existing houses for property tax purposes. This would result in raising property taxes on the older houses and potentially force some owners to sell.

Councilman David Cohen said there is no “silver bullet” that can resolve the dilemma. It may be necessary to revise the existing zoning regulations in some neighborhoods, he said.

Zoning regulations in the land use ordinance determine how close a house may be built to the front, side and rear yard lot lines, as well as the maximum height of the building.

Councilman Tim Quinn agreed with Cohen that “there are no easy answers.”

“I think this has been a helpful community dialogue” that can be used to initiate the larger conversation about how to “incentivize” the retention and creation of middle class housing in Princeton,” Quinn said.

When the meeting was opened for public comment, architect Joshua Zinder thanked Princeton Council for not acting on the ordinance amendment because it would have been another step in the “Band-Aid” approach to zoning.

Zinder, who lives in Princeton, suggested that the solution may be to revise the zoning ordinance. The zoning in many neighborhoods is not scaled to that neighborhood and does not reflect existing conditions, he said.

If the zoning regulations were revised to reflect the existing conditions, it would be unlikely that a developer would want to build a 3,000-square-foot house in a neighborhood where the houses are much smaller, he added.

Quinn said that a review showed 2,211 lots in the town do not conform to the zoning regulations in their respective neighborhoods. This amounts to 41 percent of the lots in neighborhoods zoned for one- and two-family houses, he said.

In some neighborhoods, once the demolition process starts, it leads to other demolitions in the neighborhood, Quinn said. There is a certain urgency to take action, he added.

Quinn said that in his own neighborhood in “Jugtown,” which is east of Harrison Street and that is a traditionally affordable neighborhood, three or four new houses have replaced older ones – and they are not affordable to the people who already live there.

“That’s a long way of saying there is some urgency,” Quinn said, adding that he favored carrying the public hearing for not more than one month.