“Control the size of houses and where they are built”. That was the target of Princeton Council at their meeting last week. Like many prosperous places, Princeton seems in the grip of teardown fever, as developers replace modest mid-20th-century homes with larger, more modern models. Planning Director Lee Solow suggested four different measures to make this harder, but unintended consequences seem likely…
Most of Solow’s proposals focus on restricting ‘FAR‘, a measure of how much house you are allowed to build on a particular lot. By eliminating a number of existing provisions that allow extra FAR, Solow gave Council an opportunity to restrict the size of new-build homes. For example, homeowners occupying lots that are smaller than average for their neighborhoods have until now been allowed extra FAR. Solow proposed to eliminate this exception. The problem is that by limiting what people can do with their property, the town reduces the value of that property. Restrictions on FAR can also make it impossible to add additions to existing homes unless a variance is granted by the Zoning Board – a very uncertain process.
Beyond these general concerns, the new proposals include several measures that are highly problematic. Porches would be included as part of the buildable floor surface under the new restrictions, potentially forcing homeowners to choose between a front porch or living space. Several members of the public testified that porches are a great addition to livable streets, and Council members seemed to agree that this measure was excessively restrictive. Another proposal would make it impossible to replace existing homes with buildings of the same size. This measure is likely to cause problems for property owners in the former Borough, where zoning was applied retrospectively to historic neighborhoods, and effectively made pre-existing properties illegal.
Council members had a lot of questions about the measures, and ultimately only two of the proposals were advanced, with another two potential ordinances held back for further discussion and amendment. Member Jo Butler, in particular, asked several pertinent questions about the likely effect of the proposals and whether they were necessary. Lance Liverman also seemed conflicted about the value of the proposals. The new restrictions will now pass from Council to the Planning Board for further approval.
It seems timely that Council examines the trend for bigger homes in Princeton, but the tools that they are proposing to use to limit ‘McMansions’ seem at once inadequate and liable to unintended consequences. Unfocused restrictions on FAR will have some effect on reducing the numbers of ‘McMansions’, but it will also make it harder for people to build rooms for aging parents, or to sell their homes at full value. A stealth downzoning appears to be underway, in the rush to be seen to be doing something about development that many residents consider ‘ugly’ or ‘not fitting the neighborhood’. But for many homeowners, the new restrictions may prove costly in the long-term.
Watch the discussion on new zoning restrictions from the Council meeting of 11.9.15, starting at 1:59:30: