Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher: I Am Committed To Protecting Hoboken’s Donut

Official release:

Dear friends and neighbors:  
I want to clarify some of the misinformation that has been distributed and published concerning the recent zoning ordinance I co-sponsored with Councilman DeFusco regarding Hoboken’s “Donuts.”  Contrary to what our Mayor and two of my fellow council members are attempting to make you believe, I am fully committed to protecting Hoboken’s “Donuts.”  
For those unaware, the Hoboken “Donut” is sacrosanct in Hoboken and frequently discussed and defended at planning and zoning board meetings.  You can see them in the map below – they are the residential blocks that look like loops where the interior are the backyards of the homes on that block.  Protecting the Hoboken “Donut” is something that has long been a position for most in Hoboken, myself included both when I was a commissioner on the Zoning Board and now as your Councilwoman. 
Most often not publicly accessible, Hoboken “Donuts” are still considered part of our overall open space that dense communities like ours need.  The encroachment of one property on its own rear yard clearly impacts the light and air of all the neighbors surrounding that property.  But in addition to protecting our interior open spaces, we also need to allow access to it – both for safety and enjoyment.  And such access has been limited in many instances due to our 2015 flood ordinance which some believe encourages teardowns of properties to add more economic square feet and/or requires the elevation of the lowest livable floor to a level that is often much higher than the grade of the rear yard and thus removing access to the rear yard from the living space.  
The ordinance proposed by Councilman DeFusco and myself was meant to address these issues.  It was meant to allow property owners to refurbish/rebuild their existing footprint, comply with our local flood ordinance, but not have to apply to a municipal board to have safe and enjoyable access to their rear yard while still working within the same width constraints afforded within our current zoning laws.  That is it.  
This is not by any stretch of the imagination a way “for developers to reap the benefits of larger units” as our Mayor would have you believe.   
Here is some background and more detail behind what was proposed that I hope will give you more understanding behind why I supported this ordinance and asked my council colleagues to do as well.   
  • On July 11th, the City Council, on second reading, passed an ordinance being referred to as B-40 which effectively expanded what could be excluded from lot coverage for purposes of exiting a property.  
  • Prior to B-40, our zoning code already allowed for Fire Escapes so long as they did not extend into the yard beyond 54” (see § 196-24 D. (a)). 
  • Additionally, in a 2015 ordinance sponsored by Councilmen Doyle and Russo, the code was updated to include, among other things, egress stairs extending from a rear deck from the first dwelling floor so long as they were no wider than 36”  (see § 196-28.1 A (1-3)).  
  • In B-40, we proposed that these effectively remain unchanged with the following exceptions that we felt gave more clarity, more relief to property owners negatively impacted by our flood ordinance, and in some cases improved protection of our Hoboken “Donut”: 
    • Added “Fire Escape” and “Rear Egress Stair” as defined terms that previously didn’t exist that both the same maximum width restrictions as in our current code, but actually reduces the width allowed without variance to anything more than minimum required.  
    • We also added clarifying language that said any Fire Escapes or Rear Egress Stairs wider than the minimum allowed size would in their entirety be added back into the lot coverage ratio – currently for fire escapes minimum code is 30” for single stairs and 50” for double stairs (vs. 54” allowed under our code).
    • In both definitions, it was explicitly stated that “Under No Circumstances, Shall A Rear Egress Stair Be Used As Outdoor Living Space” which provides an enforcement mechanism that did not previously exist.  
    • For Rear Egress Stair, we inserted the ability to have a 3’x3’ landing so a homeowner didn’t have to build a much larger deck to gain access to the backyard
  • What is not currently provided for in our zoning code is what we referred to as a “Fire Stair” for which we added a definition that contemplated combining the context of a Fire Escape with that of Rear Egress Stairs – ultimately a Fire Escape that is slightly wider but touches the ground akin to a Rear Egress Stair.  As proposed:
    • An open staircase affixed to the exterior of a building, and servicing all floors, for the purpose of providing secondary egress in lieu of interior stairs required for the same purpose.
Currently, building codes require in most instances that at least two forms of egress (depending on occupancy) are available for safe exit from the buildings – and if both cannot be accommodated internally, then one can be accommodated externally as a fire escape or fire stair.  A Fire Escape as currently allowed adds ~ 30-70 square feet to lot coverage for a typical single residential lot.  A Fire Stair as proposed in B-40, which was meant to provide the same function as a Fire Escape, might be a further 10-30 square feet to accommodate the difference in width between a 2’ fire escape and a 3’ stair.  
Given what our zoning code currently permits without a variance, the idea was to codify a way to allow a safe and more comfortable way to exit the building to the rear yard, allow ‘as of right’ access from livable space to the rear yard without having to build a large deck for those whose access to the rear yard has been limited under our flooding ordinance, and also not result in a material change to our current zoning code.  We believe B-40 accomplished this but will be taking a second look at the language to ensure it achieves these goals.  Any next version of this ordinance will continue to reflect my commitment to protecting Hoboken’s Donut. 
As always, feel free to reach out if you want to discuss further by email or by phone 201/208-1674.
Hoboken City Council, 2nd Ward
Engage. Inform. Advocate.
“More Voices are Better”
PS – the Mayor has an extensive email distribution list that probably exceeds mine by a multiple of 10.  So if you could send this to anyone you know who may be interested or concerned about this, I would appreciate it.
PSS – I plan to send a longer update that will include more color, but the Dog Run resolution passed last week by a vote of 6-2.  

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