Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 24
 
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
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Talks on Historic Designation Alternatives Steer Clear of Strict Property Restrictions

Matthew Hersh

Following recommendations by both a municipal commission and an outside consultant to transform a mid-century Princeton Township development into a historic neighborhood, Township officials are now looking for alternatives to historic designation, hoping to find middle ground.

Last Wednesday, a week after the Princeton Township Historic Preservation Commission endorsed an architectural consultant's study on a 34-house development on Clover Lane and Deer Path, residents attended another meeting, where the goal was to preserve their neighborhood character, with some hoping to avoid the bureaucratic process involved in making changes to a house in a historic neighborhood.

"We wanted to talk about a range of constructs, from historic districts to current zoning," said Chad Goerner, a member of Township Committee and a proponent of a form of overlay zoning known as a neighborhood conservation district. "There are potential alternatives we can use that could make sense for this neighborhood."

Neighborhood conservation districts, or NCDs, are not found in New Jersey, but municipalities throughout the state, facing aging housing stocks, and property owners building out to zoning allowances, are in the position of changing zoning related to neighborhood concerns over construction of new houses perceived to be out of character with surrounding structures.

Some existing options, Mr. Goerner said, are to modify building setback, as well as floor area ratio. In that Littlebrook section of Princeton Township, "you can currently build a 4,000 to 5,000 square foot home, and be in zoning compliance. Most people don't want historic designation, but most also don't want the status quo," Mr. Goerner said, adding "and they want to build with the least regulation possible."

A property owner in a historic zone would be required to bring a building application to the Township's Historic Preservation Commission, where that body would either recommend or deny the application. An NCD's charter would allow for less stringent mandates, Mr. Goerner said, with guidelines effectively set by the residents the district encompasses.

It is likely, however, that if any action is taken, the Township will side with a form of neighborhood protection as an alternative to historic designation. The aforementioned $6,000 consultant study, financed by the Township and conducted by the Metuchen-based Arch2, Inc, determined that neighborhood's primary structural characteristics: one-story rectangular ranches; horizontal siding; low-pitched gable, butterfly, or flat roofs; carports; window placement; as well as landscaped lots set back from the street, merited historic status.

Nancy Zerbe, the architectural historian who served as the study's primary investigator, said to members at the Historic Preservation Commission's May 29 meeting that she admired the architectural integrity of the neighborhood:

"These homes are special and, despite renovations, most of the houses have their basic form in tact," she said.

Municipal Planning Director Lee Solow, who conducted last Wednesday's community discussion with Mr. Goerner, said the Township could employ traditional zoning standards and label it as an NCD, or neighbors could get more into design specifics. He said the Deer Path/Clover Lane development represents a stark departure from existing houses on Littlebrook Road, but that the Township's current zoning there, the R-5 zoning district, applies to hundreds of homes in that neighborhood.

"Those homes back up to Littlebrook, but Littlebrook is a much different area: the homes are bigger, the lots are bigger," he said.

It is unlikely that the Township will take any action before the fall, but Mr. Goerner said residents wanted to see action one way or another: "There are important concerns and this is an important issue."

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