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“McMansions” Code Tabled as Planners Await 2006 Enactment

Matthew Hersh

After fielding numerous concerns from residents, Princeton Borough Council decided to table the introduction of an ordinance aimed, in part, to curb so-called “McMansions.”

Council did not reschedule an introduction, citing a busy agenda through the remainder of the year. Any introduction would likely occur sometime early next year.

For nearly a year-and-a-half, Council and the Regional Planning Board have weighed creating a law that limits large homes to be built on disproportionately small lots — homes that, many residents feel, are out of character with the surrounding neighborhoods.

While the proposed measure has received some praise from those living in denser Borough neighborhoods, residents in the Borough’s R-1 zoning district comprising the Borough’s western section maintain that limiting square-footage will only hurt property values. They feel that any law should focus instead on Floor Area Ratio (FAR), and be more property-specific.

“There’s no concept of the economic impact that this change in zoning will have on the Borough,” said Phil Lian, a Hodge Road resident speaking last Tuesday at Council’s hearing.

“This type of ordinance will take away a great deal of opportunity for additional tax revenue in the Borough,” he said, adding that the proposed zoning code is “extremely discriminatory” toward those living in the R-1 and R-4 zones, where lot sizes are larger.

Terence Smith, an architect known in Princeton for his design of Triumph Brewing Co. on Nassau Street, praised the philosophical aim of the ordinance, but feared that stringent limitations on building on one’s lot would create an impenetrable mass of red tape as residents seek building variances. He also suggested that the proposed law “might grind the entire process to a halt and cost more money.”

But Lee Solow, Planning Board director, said the ordinance as proposed was not punitive or discriminatory , but a mechanism to restrain neighborhoods from straying too far from the original zoning. Square-footage limits in the code, he added, “are liberal,” pointing out that “we’re not creating hardships for the majority” of the community.

Councilman David Goldfarb agreed with Mr. Smith, saying that the code as proposed is “too restrictive” and that the planning office should revisit the numbers attached to building caps.

Mr. Solow said caps were initially created not to restrict a single lot’s building potential, but to control double lots, where a developer who, while conforming to zoning code in terms of the FAR, builds two homes on site.

“There are a number of lots in all the different zones that are much larger than what the neighborhood pattern is, and if they had just an FAR, you get a very big house compared to the rest of the neighbors,” he said, adding that the proposed FAR are “much more liberal” than what the Township’s restrictions are for similarly-sized lots.

Fernando Guerrero of Hodge Road proposed a new discussion that would include a report currently being compiled by former Wharton School professor Arie Schinnar. The report explores the possible economic impact of the proposed ordinance.

“Before we set rules down,” Mr. Guerrero said, “let’s deal with potential consequences.”

In other business, the Borough also held off on introducing an affordable housing ordinance that would put the municipality in compliance with the new regulations handed down by the state through the Council on Affordable Housing (COAH).

The new hearing that will introduce two new affordable housing ordinances—one that is solely compliant with the new regulation and one that includes the new regulations plus an existing Borough overlay zone mandating that 20 percent of new residential units must be affordable— is rescheduled for Tuesday, October 25.

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