RISMEDIA, April 10, 2007-(MCT)-A tactic being used by some municipalities to curb the building of McMansions in the Garden State could wind up hurting modest home expansions such as enlarging a kitchen or adding a bathroom.
More and more New Jersey towns are turning to the "floor area ratio," a formula that caps a home's living space. Within the last year, Fair Lawn, River Edge, Wayne and Tenafly have adopted or considered adopting ordinances that use the ratio to create more stringent building limits.
The tool takes into account all livable space — including basements, second floors and garages — not just the footprint of a building.
This means that everyone — from the developer interested in knocking down an existing home to the homeowner seeking an addition — could be limited by the formula.
Any building plans have to fit a calculation which divides the square footage of the house by the area of the lot. If expansion plans exceed the allowed ratio, then a variance would be required. What constitutes "livable space" is decided by the municipality.
In the eyes of elected officials, the limit isn't a burden. It's a way to stop massive homes from being built on lots designed for smaller residences, a phenomenon that officials say is ravaging the character of their communities.
Some homeowners are pushing back, worried that the limitations could affect their property values.
"I think the goal is to have some 1/8open space3/8 but I don't think it's the business of one homeowner to act as his brother's keeper in providing open land," said Tenafly Realtor Martha Kerge.
Officials see things differently.
"We focused on what would be beneficial to the entire community," said Tenafly's Planning Board chairman, James-Robert Sellinger. "We were addressing concerns about the lack of light and air."
The township of Wayne had a problem, officials said.
A spate of knockdowns around lakeside communities replaced smaller Cape Cod homes with larger ones — something that officials say the town was not designed for.
So, local politicians turned to the floor area ratio last June. Now they're singing its praises.
"I think it's been successful so far," said Mayor Scott Rumana. "It really is forcing the people to be creative and the architects to be creative."
Fair Lawn had similar problems, officials there say. And a similar solution: the floor area ratio.
"We got some really bad construction, some big enormous houses," said Deputy Mayor Martin Etler.
Todd Malkin, a Fair Lawn Planning Board member, said the regulation isn't meant to encroach on property owners' rights.
"We wanted to strike a balance where the 1/8floor area ratio3/8 would not be too limiting," Malkin said. "Big families, for example, should be able to do moderate expansions. You want people to have houses that meet market demands, but need to strike a balance."
Tenafly is considering adopting a similar ordinance. But some officials are worried that a using a floor area ratio could hurt homeowners seeking to make necessary improvements such as handicapped-accessible living space.
A homeowner can apply for a variance for anything that doesn't fit, but approval is not a sure thing.
Opponents, however, wonder if the borough is using the right tool to limit development.
"We're using a hammer when we need a screwdriver," said Tenafly Councilwoman Carol Hoernline, who opposes the FAR regulation.
She said people are more concerned with the lack of privacy brought by larger homes in a neighborhood, something that can be regulated by having stricter side yard requirements and tree ordinances.
Tenafly resident Theodore Lilley has lived in the borough for about 60 years and he's seen the town change. He says he understands that people are frustrated by the disappearance of trees and an influx of castle-like homes.
But he has a lot to sell, one that is oversized. And he worries what a FAR regulation could mean for him.
"I'm distressed," said Lilley, who, along with his son Wayne created a tool on the Internet — ehomewatch.com/tenafly — that lets homeowners see how Tenafly's proposed floor area ratio would affect their lots.
"You'd like to have the widest possible market for your home," he said. "This narrows the market."
Experts say that limiting McMansions is not easy.
The difficulty lies in isolating what specifically is offensive about large homes on small lots, said Joanne Harkins, director of land use and planning at the New Jersey Builders Association.
Is it simply their size? The box-like appearance? The number of trees cut down to accommodate them?
"I don't know of a whole lot of studies evaluating these 'floor area ratio' ordinances, but municipalities find 'overdevelopment is' much harder to manage than they thought," Harkins said.
Even if a specific aspect of large homes can be targeted, other experts say societal and economic motivations driving the construction of large homes aren't likely to be curtailed by ordinance alone.
People are making more money than past generations and desire larger homes than ever before. So, enforcing building regulation — whether it's FAR or anything else — becomes tricky, said Joseph Seneca, an economics professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. Part of the reason variances are approved, Seneca said, is because there is significant economic value at stake.
"I call it living large in New Jersey," he said. "It's a syndrome that leads to large homes, large cars, large salaries, large commutes."
The resulting lifestyle, he said, is viewed as progress by some but as a reflection of a decline in values by others. Whether or not this should be curtailed depends on which side of the value equation you're on.
Still, floor area ratio is a powerful tool that can help maintain some desirable aspects of community that are lost to development, some say.
"They should be in every town's ordinances," said Jeff Tittel, director of New Jersey Sierra Club. "If you don't have them, you have no control over the size of a house or a shopping center."
Tittel said the formula is an indication of good planning, a way to preserve light and air, which is good for municipalities.
"By doing good planning and zoning and preventing overdevelopment, you actually increase the value of properties," Tittel said. "So having floor area ratio is not only good planning sense, it's good economic sense."
Copyright © 2007, The Record, Hackensack, N.J.
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