A man's home is his castle, but that's not necessarily seen as a good thing in parts of Montgomery County.
A loophole in county law allows owners of houses built before 1954 to tear them down and erect almost any size structure they want. In Montgomery, where land in and around the Capital Beltway is as rare as political ethics, that can mean huge houses on little lots.
"They loom over neighbor's houses, making them look like servant's quarters," complained Norman Knopf, a lawyer and Chevy Chase resident who drafted a county bill to halt so-called "mansionization" in older neighborhoods.
Without the curbs, say the bill's supporters, oversized houses will destroy the character of communities like Bethesda and Silver Spring, drastically reduce the stock of moderately priced dwellings and force tax assessments up and older residents out.
But builders and some residents contend that the bill is the work of "self-appointed zoning terrorists" who want to infringe on the rights of property owners.
The bill, which is sponsored by three Montgomery County Council members, drew more than 100 residents and developers to a hearing last fall.
"You're using a sledgehammer to push in a thumb tack," Ken Malm, a Bethesda resident and builder, said. "This bill discourages investment in older communities."
The heated debate and opposition by the Montgomery County Planning Board, which considers the bill's language too broad and difficult to administer, prompted the council to appoint a citizens' panel to work out a compromise.
A similar episode played out about six years ago in Eastport, a one-time working-class Annapolis neighborhood being gobbled by developers building expensive waterfront homes and condos.
The solution won Annapolis planners the 1997 Innovation in Zoning Award from the Maryland chapter of the American Planning Association.
"Eastport property got really hot," recalled Jon A. Arason, city planning director. "People were buying old houses and tearing them down. Zoning was working against the neighborhood. The new houses were totally out of character."
Annapolis zoning regulations encouraged modern suburban development, not small-town growth, Arason said.
Neighborhood preservationists were reluctant to go the route of establishing a historic district because they can turn into rule-laden bureaucracies.
Simpler is better
"Our philosophy was the simpler, the better," Arason said. "We wrote zoning that says the form of the neighborhood dictates what is allowed there."
The Eastport Residential Conservation Overlay District, which covers the heart of the peninsula bordered by Spa Creek and Back Creek, "ensures houses in the neighborhood are compatible in their mass and scale and character."
To comply, a new home cannot exceed the average bulk (height and scale) and property setbacks of the block. Plans are subject to a compatibility review by the city planning staff.
The zoning regulations say any alterations or new designs "shall be based on the local neighborhood features such as porches, roof pitch and direction, windows and entry doors."
"It's tough to tell an architect that his design doesn't work. Sometimes it's tough to explain the rationale," Arason acknowledged. "But it's like pornography. I know it when I see it."
City planners recently rejected a demolition permit for a house built in the 1890s just over the Spa Creek Bridge from downtown Annapolis. The decision is being appealed.
"To tear down something, you have to show us what you've planned. The burden of proof is on you," Arason said.
Native Annapolitan and architect Charlie Lamb said the "brutal clash of scale" between communities and newcomers is inevitable.
"It's the same motivation that drives office buildings to be the tallest," explained Lamb, a founding member of the Baltimore-based architectural firm RTKL Associates. "It's the 'look at me' philosophy. 'How great I am.' "
But that philosophy, he said, is not what made Annapolis popular.
"Oversized houses really run down the value of the property and the ambience of the area," Lamb said.
"If people would slow down and accept the fact that they are stewards at that time of the property they own, they would realize why Annapolis is in the history books and why the land values are high."
In Montgomery County, land in older neighborhoods became desirable because of its proximity to Washington and a sophisticated mass transit system. But post-World War II houses lack many of the features found in newer homes in rapidly developing areas like Rockville, Olney and Gaithersburg.
To attract homebuyers, developers began purchasing lots recorded before 1954, when county zoning regulations were tightened to limit the amount of land a house can cover.
The only restrictions on these "grandfathered" lots are the house cannot exceed 2 1/2 stories or 35 feet, whichever is lower, and it must be set back 25 feet from the street and 7 feet from side lot lines.