Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXI, No. 23
Wednesday, June 6, 2007
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Commission Sides With Deer Path Study, but Historic Designation Not There Yet

Matthew Hersh

A cluster of mid-20th century houses last week came one step closer to officially acquiring the "historic" tag when a Township municipal commission signed off on an outsourced study recommending historic status, and the protections and building limitations that go along with it.

The development, a 34-house band along Deer Path and Clover Lane in the Littlebrook section of Princeton Township, was first publicly identified as a possible historic district by the Township's Historic Preservation Commission in 2005, when commissioners began responding to a groundswell of concern stemming from a tear-down that aroused fears that new houses would be built in a form departing from the neighborhood style.

But as is often the case with the mechanics of neighborhood preservation, issues related to property development rights arise, and a hearing last Wednesday at Township Hall discussing the study's recommendations was no different.

"What does the designation mean for us? The truth is, it's almost impossible to come to any point of view without understanding the impact," said Clover Lane resident Sharon Rosen.

The estimated $6,000 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, an architectural historian who served as the study's principal investigator for Arch2, praised the architectural integrity of the neighborhood, and, in an apparent effort to quell some of the neighbors' concerns over potential limitations in historic neighborhoods, said there would remain a "sense of variety.

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

As far as the neighborhood's possible historic status, she said, "There is a good sense of that neighborhood as a whole," adding that while the neighborhood was a "very unusual example" of mid-century architecture, it is "something to be proud of and worthy of historic designation."

HPC commissioner Robert von Zumbusch said the ultimate decision would go to Township Committee, and that the governing body would likely be receptive to a majority opposition. As it stands, the neighborhood is split roughly 50-50 on the issue, though last week's hearing had little of the fireworks seen in recent Princeton Borough hearings over a proposed historic district in the Borough's affluent western section.

"Let's be realistic about it, if all of the neighbors are opposed, Township Committee will have to feel pretty strongly about this," Mr. von Zumbusch said. As for the HPC endorsement of the Arch2, "we have to take advice on technical merit," he said.

The history of the neighborhood suggests a fairly standard picture of post-World War II development. In 1954, architects Herbert Kendall and David Savage began the 34-house development with various restrictions, including building houses no taller than one-and-a-half stories, and building no closer than 10 feet to any lot line. The property had originally been part of the Princeton Preparatory School campus, which declared bankruptcy in the 1930s.

But as municipalities across the country begin to deal with aging housing stocks, and a growing trend in replacing older houses with ones that push the zoning envelope, residents and elected officials alike are trying to figure out how to retain neighborhood character in the face of renovations and rebuilds.

It appears increasingly likely that the Township will aim for a compromise before ever casting a final vote on the proposed Deer Path/Clover Lane district. Chad Goerner, a member of Township Committee and an advocate for a less stringent form of overlay zoning known as a Neighborhood Conservation District, will host a discussion with municipal planning director Lee Solow tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Township Hall to discuss the possibilities found in that particular classification.

"Historic designation is only one tool," Mr. Goerner said last week. "It's important that everyone is familiar with all tools available."

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