A plan to construct three townhomes on Humbert Lane in Princeton appears to be dead after neighbors won a court case challenging its approval by the Princeton Planning Board. The so-called ‘Greenberg et al’ case relates to an application by ‘Simplify Living’ for a 3-unit townhouse development (discussed here). As reported in ‘Walkable Princeton’, neighboring residents were vehemently opposed to the proposal, which involves replacing one two-family home with three townhouses, arranged in a front-to-back split fronting onto Humbert Lane (map). The Planning Board ultimately approved the application, but that approval has now been overturned by the Mercer Superior Court. In addition to making it very hard for the applicant to return with a similar proposal, the ruling is likely to make it harder to build infill developments at many other sites in town.
The case was heard by Judge Robert T. Lougy, who has replaced the liberal Mary Jacobson as the new senior judge for Mercer County. He found that the Board’s approval of the townhouse application should be overturned for two reasons. First, for properties of less than half an acre, all units should face the public street. In this case, two of the properties face onto the private driveway, Humbert Lane, instead of Humbert Street itself. A variance ought to be applied for to allow this. The judge also found fault with the way the Planning Board considered the application for variances, and found that the consideration was equivalent to a rezoning. His judgement, relayed by Planning Board attorney Gerald Muller at the Planning Board meeting of October 7, was that a a land use board does not have the jurisdiction to take action that may result in “substantially changing the character of the district”.
Muller noted that the judge’s ruling went further than might have been expected based on previous cases, and that it is unclear how widely it will apply. Notably, three units are permitted by the zoning at this site, and existing homes also face Humbert Lane. Muller noted that the court’s decision that the application “substantially changed the character of the neighborhood” related to the addition of just one single additional home. Based on the hawkishness of the judge’s ruling, he therefore advised that the Board would have to proceed “with an abundance of caution” when considering other applications that involved variances.
Planning Board chair Louise Wilson agreed that the Board would have to be “really cautious going forward”. Muller mentioned one specific concept plan that the Board would be considering soon, that would would have to be considered carefully in light of the ‘Greenberg’ decision. The implication is that applications that do not conform to a conservative interpretation of zoning will face a much tougher road in gaining approval from the Planning Board in future. The judge’s ruling could be challenged by either the Planning Board, or the applicant, ‘Simplify Living’. Muller advised that the Planning Board should not consider an appeal. The town could also modify zoning to make it easier to construct compact homes at sites like this, but elected officials have so far shown little interest in doing so.
Although some site work has apparently begun at the site (see image at top), it seems very unlikely that anything will be built there soon. The applicant, ‘Simplify Living’, also got a firm rejection from the Planning Board earlier this year over another townhouse application on Linden Lane.