Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 7
Wednesday, February 13, 2008
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Township Looks Closely at Preserving Character in Littlebrook District

Matthew Hersh

Princeton Township Committee agreed Monday night to assemble a working group designed to explore the viability of preserving character in a 34-home, mid-century development in the town’s Littlebrook section.

The move marks a degree of progress in a slow, calculated initiative geared to protect character and careful not to overstep regulatory measures that some fear are inherent in historic preservation.

The neighborhood, which runs along Deer Path and Clover Lane, was developed in the mid-1950s, and while there appears to be general agreement among residents that the character of the one-story rectangular ranches, with horizontal siding, low-pitched gable, butterfly, or flat roofs, and carports, should be maintained, the issue of placing additional zoning or overlays on the neighborhood is still in play for some residents there despite a 2007 report commissioned by the Township that endorsed some type of historic preservation.

Members of the municipal Historic Preservation Commission, which endorsed the findings of the $6,000 report assembled by the Metuchen-based Arch2 Inc., were in attendance Monday as the Township took careful measures to move forward, but did not sign off on any specific character-preserving mechanism.

Following a report by municipal planning director Lee Solow on the current zoning allowances in that area, the Township’s R-5 residential zoning district, Committee members exhibited a qualified enthusiasm for preservation of the neighborhood’s character.

“It’s not difficult to understand the intrinsic value of the neighborhood,” said Deputy Mayor Bernie Miller, adding that he would like to see that any restrictions leave room for a wide range of options.

The houses in the R-5 lie on half-acre lots, with roughly two units per acre, but in the Deer Path and Clover Lane area, the houses take up only about one-third of an acre, with an average of about 2,000 to 2,300-square-feet, and are mostly one-story. The main concern with residents there is that most of the houses do not come close to approaching the maximum building allowances in R-5 zoning, related to floor area ratio, or FAR — the measurement that guides the mass and scale of the houses.

The R-5 permits a 20 percent FAR, meaning that a 4,300-square-foot house could be built on a half-acre lot. Most of the Deer Path and Clover Lane houses fall in the 9 to 16 percent FAR range, Mr. Solow said, leaving room for growth for residents who want to demolish their house and rebuild something more spacious.

It was, in fact, that very scenario that sparked the neighborhood effort to preserve character.

Nancy Zerbe, the principal investigator and co-author of the Arch2 report, recommended a local designation that would effect increased regulatory measures on private property. “As an architectural historian, you get a sense that there is something special here.

“It’s definitely a very unusual example of mid-century architecture,” she said.

Township Committee, if it acts on the findings of any assembled working group, will likely endorse the Neighborhood Conservation District concept first advanced by Committeeman Chad Goerner in 2006. Mr. Goerner promoted the idea of an NCD, a form of overlay zoning employed in municipalities outside of New Jersey, but not typically used in New Jersey, largely because it would allow residents to craft their own design standards.

But there were differences expressed Monday within the assemblage of residents. Rafael Sharon, of Clover Lane, supported historic designation of the neighborhood. “It’s important as a homeowner and a resident. We’ve spent thousands of dollars on the consultant who felt it should be a historic district.”

Mr. Sharon then appeared to address those in opposition, saying that the examination of the neighborhood’s status “should not be a popularity contest.”

Jim Hirsch, also of Clover Lane, who has long been skeptical of further regulatory measures on neighborhood standards, encouraged Committee to explore all options of preservation, including NCDs: “Why shouldn’t we explore one, or all, of these options in depth?”

Members of Township Committee, including Mayor Phyllis Marchand, appeared warm to the NCD concept. A working group will likely be organized in the coming months.

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