This story was originally published in the March 2017 Princeton Echo.
If you heard someone refer to a “quaint B&B in Princeton,” the mental picture of that phrase could easily resemble Laura Edwards’ four-acre property on Cherry Hill Road. A house that dates back to the 1700s sits roughly in the middle of the lot, a barn that once housed a pair of horses sits nearby.
The charm of a bed and breakfast, of course, as compared to staying at a commercial hotel, is that when you wake up in the morning your host not only serves you breakfast but also shares some lore of the community you are visiting. Laura Edwards claims to be a pretty good cook and she undoubtedly has lots of local lore to share.
Edwards grew up in Brooklyn, where her father was a mechanic and her mom was a housewife. Before moving to Princeton in 1983, she lived in Mexico for 15 years with her husband Michael, who worked there setting up factories. In Princeton they ran Edwards Travel Service on Tulane Street. Laura raised her son and also bred a pair of Trakehner horses she brought over from Mexico.
In 1983 the family bought the 4.24-acre property from Dorothy Lynch, a member of a farming family. The previous owner — incredibly — still had a functioning outhouse. For 10 years the Edwards lived in the 1,000 square feet farmhouse before building a 1,500 square foot addition.
In 1996 Edwards’ husband died. She stopped breeding horses on the property and began working as an alpaca breeder at Meadowgate Alpaca Farm in Lawrence, helping to build that herd to 250 over a 15-year period.
It’s easy to imagine Edwards hosting a handful of overnight guests at her B&B. But it would be impossible to stay at that B&B, because there are none permitted in Princeton’s residentially zoned areas. Edwards’ application to convert her property to a B&B failed to gain the necessary votes at the January 25 Zoning Board.
The closest you can come to a B&B in Princeton is an “Airbnb in Princeton,” of which — it turns out — there are at least several hundred on airbnb.com. Options include, for example, an entire studio for $250 a night on Palmer Square West. A single room in a house at 99 Linden Lane is listed for $115 a night. One of the higher end offerings on Airbnb is 48 Wiggins Street, a three-bedroom, three-and-a-half bath townhome at the corner of Jefferson Road that is listed at $1,099 a night, with a two-night minimum stay. The residence can fit at least eight people, and a reservation of a week or longer nets a 25 percent discount.
For owners participating in Airbnb the extra revenue must be nice. And the nicest thing of all is that it is entirely unregulated: no site plan review or zoning variance needed. Perhaps even better, in sharp contrast to what is faced by some 800 landlords renting out to long-term tenants, Airbnb rentals require no reporting to the municipality’s rental board and no bi-annual apartment inspections, checking on such items as backup batteries for hard-wired smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
The great disparity in regulation between B&Bs and Airbnbs was not lost on several members of the Zoning Board as they discussed Edwards’ application.
“Before the meeting I did a Google search on Airbnb in Princeton,” said Louisa Clayton. “I was shocked at how many there were. There is one right up the street from me. At least this one would be regulated. We know it’s there. And I think the town could use the extra space” for overnight accommodations.
Speaking from the audience, Elliot Lieb of 20 Bouvant Drive spoke in favor of the B&B. A professor of physics at Princeton, Lieb noted that the university was not as wealthy as some might think. To accommodate a visitor for a lecture or symposium, “we have to work on the cheap,” said Lieb. A B&B would be an attractive alternative to more expensive commercial lodgings.
Edwards was represented at the hearing by attorney Richard Schatzman, who — in response to some concerns that an approval of this application would result in an opening of the floodgates for B&Bs — reminded the board that use variances are “site specific and fact specific.”
Architect Jerry Ford presented drawings showing how the two-story barn would have been converted into guest rooms, and the main house would be altered slightly to permit two bedrooms in the portion of house enclosed by thick stone walls. A screened patio on the another side of the house was to be enclosed in glass and serve as the breakfast room. Ford was also the architect for the conversion of a single family house on Route 206 in Lawrenceville into a B&B now known as Glencairn. Ford pointed out that the improvements to that property triggered improvements to other houses in the neighborhood and that neighbors ultimately viewed the B&B as a positive addition, a place where they could house overnight guests when their own homes were not large enough.
But that testimony was countered by neighbors who were concerned about cars coming and going to the property and about strangers being present in the neighborhood.
The concern about strangers was noted by Zoning Board member Eve Coulson: “Being afraid of a B&B seems like a real Princeton problem to me,” she said. In ordinary, everyday life, she added, “we can have all sorts of surprises from new neighbors.”
But the use variance required five votes and Clayton and Coulson were joined only by Doreen Blanc Rockstrom and board chair Barrie Royce in support. “The vote was so close that my heart was in my mouth,” said Edwards. In the two years she spent preparing the application, Edwards estimates she spent $40,000 in legal and architectural fees.
Ironically Edwards was well aware of the Airbnb approach. She stayed at an Airbnb on a recent trip to Berlin, reserving a whole residence, but she was not comfortable with directly renting rooms in her house on Airbnb.
“A B&B is a safer environment. I don’t want to do it alone on Airbnb,” Edwards said. “My son is in his 30s, he’s a salesman in L.A. and he drives all over. The plan was asking him to return to Princeton, and the B&B would be something for him.” She added, “Sometimes I feel stupid for going through all this. I don’t know, it was really disappointing. I was surprised at some neighbor reactions, it’s not like I’m opening a Hilton. It would be like if a large family lived here.”
Airbnb may not enjoy its unregulated freedom in Princeton for long. In rejecting the Edwards application, the Zoning Board noted that it should recommend that Council take up the issue. The Board’s year-end report to Council cited the Edwards application and asked Council to consider “establishing comprehensive regulations for Air bnbs operating in Princeton as soon as feasible.” In addition the Board asked Council to review the master plan and clarify where B&Bs may be appropriate.
Messages left for Council president Jenny Crumiller were not returned.
“Airbnb is on our radar and right now not regulated by anybody,” said Chip Sugg, the town’s rental housing inspector. “What happens is neighbors see transient people who are there for a short period of time. The next weekend it will be someone new. We are getting complaints.”