May 3, 2023

Sharing Concerns Regarding Request for Zoning Variance to Allow Coffee Roasting

To the Editor:

Later this month, the Princeton Board of Zoning Adjustment will hear for the third time from an applicant seeking a zoning variance to allow coffee roasting at 300 Witherspoon Street. This “use” is currently prohibited everywhere in Princeton, as it is considered to be “food processing” and/or “manufacturing.” I and everyone I have spoken to are in favor of the café and look forward to it but not the roasting.

The application states that within its coffee shop will be an “artisanal, small-batch” roastery to enhance the coffee shop experience. This is a problem for two major reasons:

Commercial coffee roasting of the scale proposed by the applicants (between 20,000 and 70,000 pounds per year) will emit significant amounts of foul-smelling chemicals (described by some as smelling like “burned microwave popcorn”) and also CO2. Federal agencies CDC, NIOSH, and HHS have all issued warnings regarding some of the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) released during coffee roasting and venting;

These airborne smells and chemicals will travel on the wind and could negatively impact the air quality of the 300 or so residential buildings, 300 plus rental units at Avalon, Clay Street, and Stanworth, and the 300 plus students at Community Park School, all of which are within ¼ mile of the roasting site.

Zoning law requires variance applicants to notify property owners within 200 feet of the property, 45 of whom were properly “noticed.” However, many hundreds, if not thousands, of Princeton residents within the ¼ mile “smell zone” were not given notice.

An important purpose of Princeton’s zoning ordinances is to protect the public from potentially hazardous activities that can negatively affect health, air quality, and overall quality of life. The process of zoning adjustment through variance should not be used to re-zone an area as “Industrial” just because a commercial entity would “like” to benefit economically from a prohibited activity.

Any type of polluting activity, no matter how benign in the minds of the applicants, should not be permitted in the middle of Princeton’s most densely populated neighborhood (Witherspoon-Jackson) and most heavily used recreational area (Community Park) and certainly not next-door to an elementary school, without the full awareness and support of the affected communities. Hence, this letter.

The applicant has testified under oath that the coffee shop will be built and operated, whether or not the roasting variance is granted. Therefore, I believe that the air quality and quality of life of the neighbors can, and should, be protected.

Several of Princeton’s current coffee houses have roasters, but in other towns within industrial zones in industrial buildings in zones that the use is permitted. All in neighboring towns of Princeton and within reasonable driving times of Princeton.

The May 24 meeting will probably be interested residents’ only chance to register concerns before the Board of Zoning Adjustment makes its decision.

Jeff Furey
Witherspoon Street