May 4, 2016

Growing Teardown Trend Brings in a Consultant For Zoning, Planning Study

At a meeting on April 25, Princeton Council voted unanimously to hire a consultant to take a hard look at residential zoning in the town. The priority of The RBA Group’s Neighborhood Character and Zoning Study will be the issue of teardowns, which are taking place in just about every area of the town.

The study is in response to concerns of residents and local officials that houses falling victim to the wrecking ball are being replaced by new homes that, while conforming to zoning regulations, are out of character with their neighborhoods.

“There is a need for us to do comprehensive planning,” said Mayor Liz Lempert a few days after the Council meeting. “And the timing works well with the fact that we are harmonizing our zoning ordinances [of the former Borough and Township prior to consolidation]. We see on the ground, in almost every neighborhood, the motivation for why we need to take a step back and review what the laws are on the books. We need to know whether they are in line with the vision we have for our community.”

A group of Council and Planning Board members has been meeting to discuss the scope of the project. The committee chose The RBA Group, in part, because of the work they have done on a similar issue in Haddonfield. Council candidate Tim Quinn, a Planning Board member who was a member of the group, said RBA’s proposal calls for considerable community input.

“What I liked about their proposal is that it includes a really robust public involvement,” he said. “They’ll be doing a full range of community outreach, with small neighborhood meetings and perhaps bigger forums to which people can come out and discuss the issue.”

“This is something that is long overdue for Princeton,” Ms. Lempert said. “We see a lot of examples of how the current zoning is not working. Instead of trying to fix it in a piece-by-piece way, I think it can be much more effective if we take a step back, engage the community, and try to get consensus about what we’d like to see.”

Current ordinances allow builders to utilize the rules about how tall a building can be to increase the square footage. “The result is barns with unusual roof lines that maximize the interior square footage and result in houses that are out of character for a lot of neighborhoods,” said Mr. Quinn. “I think people recognize that not every house is going to be able to be rehabbed and maintained in the way that would allow neighborhoods to remain the same. It’s more a question of what is built next to it. When a much bigger house replaces a house that’s torn down, the smaller house looks out of character.”

Developers will be a part of the conversation. “There will be some focus groups and also larger community meetings, and we’re more likely to be successful if we have the developers at the table and have something that is going to work for everybody,” Ms. Lempert said. “It’s also an opportunity to have the conversation about what the community would like to see.”

The study will take into consideration the fact that Princeton is made up of neighborhoods that differ in character. “What is appropriate on Library Place is going to be out of place on Chestnut Street,” Ms. Lempert said. “Landscaping plays different roles in different areas. The consultants will take a really comprehensive look, with community input, at a lot of different variables including streetscape, environmental concerns like stormwater and flooding, and potential economic impacts.”

The RBA Group is contracted to be paid no more than $57,258 for professional planning services, to take place between May 2 of this year and May 31, 2017.

“This is an opportunity to adopt best practices, update our zoning, and change what’s on our books to better reflect what’s on the ground,” Ms. Lempert said.