Princeton officials put hold on controversial land use ordinance

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Admitting that the issue is more complex than it had anticipated, the Princeton Council has tabled the much-debated change to the land use ordinance that would ban the construction of over-sized houses on undersized lots.

The Princeton Council voted unanimously at its April 22 meeting to table the ordinance amendment and instead focus on “harmonizing” elements of the land use ordinances in the former Princeton Borough and former Princeton Township.

“When we originally brought this (ordinance amendment) forward, we thought it would be an ‘easy lift,'” Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert said, but it has turned out to be more complicated than Princeton Council had expected.

Town officials have gathered a lot of data relating to the proposed ordinance amendment, and they need time to analyze it, Mayor Lempert said. Princeton Council has to decide where it wants town planners to spend their time.

Working on the ordinance amendment has taken time away from other things, such as harmonizing the land use ordinances in the two towns that have now consolidated to become one town, Mayor Lempert said.

There are discrepancies in the land use ordinances that were in place when the two towns consolidated to become the Town of Princeton in 2013. Each town had its own land use ordinance that governed development in the former Princeton Borough and former Princeton Township.

Meanwhile, the ordinance amendment that was tabled at the April 22 meeting stated that Princeton had received “numerous complaints from the public regarding the proportional increase in the floor area ratio,” which affects the maximum square footage of a new house to be built.

The rationale for allowing the construction of new houses that are larger than what would have otherwise been permitted on a small, undersized lot is to permit house sizes to be uniform in the zoning district.

A small house could be demolished and replaced by a new house that is significantly larger – and likely more expensive – that what would have been allowed.

Alluding to the practice of tearing down houses and replacing them with ones that are not compatible with the neighborhood, the ordinance amendment stated that eliminating the so-called proportional floor area ratio would “further the goals of maintaining the existing character of Princeton’s residential neighborhoods.”

While some residents had said they were encouraged by the effort to discourage tear-downs – 195 houses were demolished between 2012 and 2018 – other residents said they were concerned about the unintended consequences if their house is on an undersized lot.

The residents said they were concerned about the added cost of applying for a variance at the Zoning Board of Adjustment if they wanted to add on to their house – whether it was a bedroom or a bathroom – in addition to the architect’s fee and the construction costs.

Princeton resident Joseph Weiss, who is an architect, told the Princeton Council that he was glad that it is going to reconsider the ordinance amendment. Applying a town-wide fix would have unintended consequences to a neighborhood, he said, urging the council to look at the issue “holistically.”

Weiss said that “in a way,” the language in the ordinance amendment “has turned ‘tear down’ into a dirty word.” There are some houses that should be replaced with new ones, he said, adding that the term “tear down” has been “vilified.”

Architect Marina Rubina, who lives in Princeton and who opposed the ordinance amendment, said she was grateful that the Princeton Council is putting it on hold.

Rubina said she hoped Princeton Council did not feel it was a wasted effort, but instead deepened its understanding of the complexity of the issue.

Mayor Lempert said she was sorry if anyone felt vilified.  The amount of construction activity in Princeton has created concern and fear among many residents, and it is the main topic of conversation when residents approach her, she said.

Mayor Lempert agreed that vilification of others is not helpful, and what is needed is just an “honest conversation” about issues. It is “almost impossible to get zoning right,” she said, and that’s why there is a Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Princeton Administrator Marc Dashield said he expected to introduce a harmonized land use ordinance in early 2020.