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Leveling restrictions on houses' big growth

Communities target McMansions, hoping to preserve character.

July 23, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

ALLENSPARK, COLO. — Fed up with seeing outsize houses popping up in open spaces or overwhelming the scale of established neighborhoods, cities and counties across the United States are declaring war on McMansions.

Famously eco-friendly Boulder County, Colo., is considering forcing people in some rural areas to pay extra to build homes bigger than 3,000 square feet. Atlantic Beach, Fla., has restricted home size to half the square footage of lots, and the Los Angeles City Council is due to consider a similar measure.

In Minneapolis, reining in big homes was the top issue Betsy Hodges heard about when door-knocking in her successful campaign for City Council in 2005; last month she and the rest of the council unanimously passed a law restricting home size to half the square footage of each lot.

"There are blocks in my district where almost every house has been rebuilt," Hodges said last week. With homebuilders replacing "smaller houses and building larger homes, people felt they were losing the things they valued about their neighborhood."

McMansions are an issue mostly in built-out cities or in rural communities where residents hope to preserve a bucolic character, experts say. Traditionally, home size has been regulated by zoning laws that require structures to be set back a certain distance from the property line and permit building only within a "footprint." But as land prices rise and the desire for bigger houses grows, new housing is increasingly "bigfooting" lots and consuming airspace, leading to the rush to set limits.

The restrictions come at the tail end of the largest residential building boom in U.S. history. From 2000 to 2005, record numbers of single-family homes were constructed, often in place of older, more modest structures. That unprecedented explosion in homes "has produced so much change on the landscape that this is really a counter-response to it," said James W. Hughes, dean of Rutgers University's Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

In Salt Lake City, districts full of bungalows and Craftsman houses have suddenly been inundated by tear-downs, leading the City Council to limit most houses to a height of 28 feet. "It's a pretty popular thing to go back in and rebuild or knock down now," said George G. Shaw, the city's planning director. "People want to improve their property; they want more square footage."

In 1973, the median size of a new American home was 1,525 square feet; in 2006, it was 2,248 square feet.

The growth was fueled partly by the increased amenities available to consumers.

"Home entertainment centers used to be a TV set and a video recorder," said John R. Nolon, a law professor at Pace University in New York and counsel to its Land Use Law Center. "Now it's an entire room."

But experts see other forces at play, including the urge to show off with bigger houses. "Even people who had more disposable income 20 years ago weren't inclined to be ostentatious," Nolon said. "Being audacious wasn't considered as [much a] part of the American character as it is nowadays."

Capping change

The forces driving the backlash against big houses are in sharp relief in Boulder County, which begins in the suburbdotted prairies northwest of Denver and stretches to the high peaks of the Continental Divide.

The median size of a new home in unincorporated Boulder County grew from 3,900 in 1990 to 6,300 last year. That led officials to consider capping the square footage of mountain homes at 2,500 square feet -- a number since modified.

But Boulder also highlights the hazards of the McMansion backlash.

Many rural property owners complained that the proposed regulations would interfere with their property rights.

After critics flooded a meeting earlier this month, county commissioners shifted toward a less restrictive policy that would limit homes in mountains to about 4,500 square feet -- though 1,500 of that must be garage or basement. Houses on the plains would have a limit of 4,500 square feet above ground, with an extra 2,500 for basement and garage. Anyone who wanted to build larger would have to purchase development rights from homeowners whose structures were below the minimum.

The final regulations have not been drafted yet, and county commissioners say they believe they will ultimately tie home size to that of neighboring structures, and also give bonuses for green building.

Even the softened proposals anger some rural landowners.

Kevin Probst lives in a 4,000-square-foot, solar-powered house in the mountain town of Nederland. Like most residents of this left-leaning region, he considers himself an environmentalist. "But I also support the property rights guaranteed in our Constitution," said Probst, 56, an engineer and physicist. "This is strictly handing a carrot to the NIMBY crowd."

But some residents of small communities like Allenspark, at the foot of Rocky Mountain National Park, say they're trying to preserve a resource for everyone.

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