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A Man's Home Is His Castle -- Sometimes Literally

Mansionization is at the center of a growing debate in affluent suburbs, where massive reconstructed houses dwarf their neighbors.

June 19, 2005|John Christoffersen | Associated Press Writer

NEW CANAAN, Conn. — Paul Chapman had a vision of a richly appointed dream house, so he built it. On the footprint of his 1,800-square-foot ranch home emerged a 3,500-square-foot, gray, center hall colonial that would give his young family of three plenty of room to grow.

The three-story home has a grand foyer, four bedrooms, including a master suite, a family room, an office and a kitchen with an island.

"I wanted an entryway where we could welcome people into the home," Chapman said. "Having a foyer was a nice way to greet your neighbors."

But where Chapman sees a sophisticated lady, his neighbors see a hulking monster that has cast them in perpetual shade.

Chapman is at the center of a growing battle in the nation's affluent suburbs, which are grappling with how much is too much when it comes to large new houses built on smaller properties in older neighborhoods. The trend, called "mansionization" by planners, is especially prevalent in wealthy towns with a hot real estate market and a ZIP Code with cache. Santa Monica and the South Bay are prime examples.

"It goes on all over the country in select neighborhoods," said Robert Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, which tracks urban growth trends. "It's reached a critical point."

With little open space left, older neighborhoods close to mass transit and cultural activities are increasingly in demand.

"People want the neighborhood, but they don't want the house," Lang said. "There wasn't that much of a premium to do it until recently."

The average size of homes in the United States has grown steadily in the past two decades, from 1,785 square feet in 1985 to 2,340 square feet last year. About 21% of homes built last year were 3,000 square feet or larger, nearly double the number in 1988, according to the National Assn. of Home Builders.

Connecticut's Gold Coast has noticed the trend, but hasn't exactly embraced it.

New Canaan adopted regulations this spring that include reducing the permitted height of houses in some areas, said Hiram Peck, town planner. Greenwich and Westport are considering tougher zoning regulations that would address the size issue.

Towns from northern New Jersey to the suburbs of Chicago and California have already passed measures to curb the size of the homes, sometimes called McMansions, monster mansions or starter castles.

But, increasingly, residents of older, established neighborhoods are waking up to find neighbors tearing down modest houses built decades ago and replacing them with homes double and triple the size on small lots.

Joan Fragen's home is surrounded by dramatically larger new houses in Winnetka, Ill., an affluent suburb of Chicago that, in recent years, has created a review process for demolitions to determine if the houses have architectural or historical significance, and adopted measures to reduce the permitted height of the homes.

"I always say we live in the slave quarters for all these castles," Fragen said.

In Montclair, N.J., where officials are considering measures to curb the size of new houses, Donna Minnicozzi said she was stunned when a nearly 4,000-square-foot house was built behind her 1,600-square-foot home. Now she has 17 windows overlooking her property.

"We joked that we were going to project movies onto the side of their house; that's how large it is," she said.

Chapman, 36, a computer engineer and father of a 2-year-old girl, had considered moving out of his former ranch home. But he loved the neighborhood, where he could walk to the train and downtown. A new house was his best option, he concluded, because the original house couldn't handle the weight of an addition and he would never be able to eliminate the mold that plagued it.

He thinks he knows why his neighbors don't like his home.

"I'm surrounded by octogenarians who don't want to see the neighborhood change in any way," he said.

His critics, 40-year-old neighbor Cari Nizolek among them, say the new house looms over them, eliminating all privacy and destroying the character of the neighborhood. "If I wanted darkness, I would move to Alaska," said Nizolek, who has lived in her home 14 years.

Proponents say the larger homes increase the value of their smaller neighbors. But those who live in the smaller homes also worry that it's not long before their property taxes rise and they're priced out of the neighborhood.

"I hoped to stay here for the rest of my life," said Phyllis Linden, one of many retirees in the New Canaan neighborhood. "There's a lot of older women like me who don't want a big house. It's hard to find these little homes."

Some of the battles have gone on for years without resolution.

In Menlo Park, Calif., an affluent community near San Francisco, regulations to control the size of new homes were passed and rescinded amid a petition drive that attracted more than 2,000 signatures.

"The tension is still there," said Earl Shelton, an opponent of the larger homes. "It's divided the city into two camps."

Shelton, 57, a scientist, said that in his neighborhood, at least a dozen older homes have been torn down and replaced with much larger ones, which come with a flashier lifestyle that creates further divisions.

"It's 'look at me' instead of just 'I'll live here,' " Shelton said. "It's a different philosophy of life: 'I've got a lot of money and I want people to see it.' "

Lang believes that there is room for compromise. The trend is not all bad because the newer homeowners seek to live in established neighborhoods with shorter commutes, avoiding more suburban sprawl, he said.

But the new homeowners need to consider the neighborhood. "Don't make the house next door to it look like a doghouse," he said.

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