Big planters bug zoning board

If the planters are structures, many borough residents with gardens may not be in compliance with Princeton Borough’s zoning ordinance.

By: Jennifer Potash
   Is a planter a structure or a mere vessel for — well — plants?
   This heady question consumed the Princeton Borough Zoning Board of Adjustment for a couple of hours Thursday.
   But the board did find time to approve renovations to historic Westland, the former home of President Grover Cleveland.
   Anne and Walter Neumann of Alexander Road sought permission to create a garden out of what is now a gravel parking lot at the rear of their property, using 17 galvanized metal feed troughs ranging in diameter from 4 to 8 feet. The couple already installed and filled the planters with soil but have not yet added the plants.
   Borough Zoning and Historic Preservation Officer Frank Slimak deemed the planters structures, since the installation would change the topography of the property — and at least seven were beyond the 5-foot setback line. Also, Mr. Slimak said, if the tubs were not considered structures, there would be no stopping other borough residents from placing such planters in front yards.
   Deeming planters structures could mean that many borough residents with gardens may not be in compliance with the zoning ordinance, said Barrie Royce, chairman of the zoning board.
   "I may have to come before this board for my vegetable garden," said Mr. Royce. Mr. Slimak said Mr. Royce might indeed need approval for his garden.
   The appearance and location of the planters was an issue because the Neumanns’ home — a two-family white clapboard residence designed by early 19th century architect Charles Steadman — is in the Mercer Hill Historic District.
   The Borough Historic Preservation Review Committee gave its consent to the planters if the Neumanns agreed to screen the yard with a fence or other plantings.
   Celia Tazelaar, chairwoman of the Historic Preservation Review Committee, said committee members objected to the appearance of the shiny metal planters, which are visible from the public right of way. Ms. Neumann said the planters will dull with exposure to the elements.
   Some zoning board members argued the planters were vessels holding plant material.
   Other members questioned if one particular planter — intended to be used as a water feature in the garden — was really an above-ground pool. No, according to Mr. Slimak, because the planter was not deep enough.
   The zoning board voted unanimously to call the planters structures and to grant a variance for the planters with the condition the Neumanns return to the Historic Preservation Review Committee to develop a screening plan.
   But the board rejected the Neumanns’ request to build a conservatory that would front on Alexander Street, agreeing with the Historic Preservation Review Committee the structure would not fit in with the Historic Mercer Hill District.
   The zoning board also granted permission for changes to the Hodge Road home of former President Cleveland.
   Scott and Tracy Sipprelle, residents of Elm Road, recently purchased the historic residence where former President Cleveland lived from 1897 until his death in 1908. The residence previously was owned by David and Catherine Chirls. Ms. Chirls died Sept. 11 in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan.
   The Georgian Revival house, built for Caroline Stockton Dod in 1854, was divided into two residences in 1950.
   The house will be restored to the period when President Cleveland owned it, said Mr. Sipprelle. The changes, including a new gable with Palladian windows, two dormers and a rooftop balustrade, were approved by the zoning board with the condition the Sipprelles fulfill a previous condition to install evergreen trees at least 8 feet tall along the property line of a second Cleveland home, which abuts the Hodge Road property and fronts on Cleveland Lane.