Suburbs rejecting previous remedies for city sprawl Townhouse projects starting to draw heavy opposition

June 28, 1998|By Iver Peterson | Iver Peterson,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SLOATSBURG, N.Y. - The law people cite most often in this village these days is the one that says precisely what kind of housing is allowed: single-family houses on lots of 40,000 square feet, single-family houses on 30,000 square feet, single-family houses on 15,000 square feet and single-family houses on 10,000 square feet. Period.

The word "apartment" appears only to describe something that may exist on the second floor of a single-family house, and then only by permit. Nowhere do the words "big condominium townhouse project" appear, and villagers have been crowding town meetings this spring to keep it that way.

They are trying to derail a plan by Mayor Samuel Abate to bring the first multifamily housing to a village filled with people who came here to get away from the idea.

Sloatsburgers are willing to have change and growth - to a point, said Becky Kern, a leader of the Little Town Forum for the Historic Preservation of Sloatsburg, a group formed to resist Abate.

"We don't want change that will bring us to a future of jammed roads, overcrowded schools, vinyl-clad boxes piled 3] stories high and a shopping center that looks like every other strip mall," she said.

Change in mood

This view puts Kern and her allies squarely in the mainstream of a national reaction against high-density rowhouse developments like the one K. Hovnanian Enterprises, the biggest townhouse developer in the country, hopes to build in Sloatsburg.

Their opposition seems a far cry from the early acceptance of suburban townhouses, when they first began appearing in large numbers in the 1970s, as sensible, affordable and - because they reduced sprawl - environmentally friendly starter homes for young couples, or as step-down homes for empty-nesters.

But as the number of townhouses has increased, complaints have grown that townhouses clog roads, send more children into local schools than had been promised, depress the value of single-family houses and too frequently become rental units.

The supervisors of Prince William County, Va., concerned about rapid growth, approved a zoning plan this spring that reduces the number of future townhouses that may be built by 10,000 units, or 40 percent. It did so by creating a zone excluding townhouses in the county's western reaches.

Prince George's County has passed a law banning townhouses in certain areas where schools are crowded.

The supervisors were responding to widespread complaints that townhouses were driving down property values and crowding schools.

Two years ago, Brian Sheerin won a seat on the town board in the suburban Pittsburgh town of Ben Avon on the strength of a last-minute write-in vote from neighbors opposed to a small, 15-unit townhouse project on Dickson Avenue.

And in an early example that could have come from nearly anywhere, the City Council of San Leandro, Calif., rejected a 36-unit rowhouse project in the northern part of town in 1992 despite a consensus among environmentalists that by filling vacant space in a built-up area, the project was environmentally sensible.

'Puts a scare into people'

"I don't care how it is designed, where it is located, what it costs and who is developing it," Bradley Inman, a real estate writer, said in a commentary for the San Francisco Examiner. "High-density housing almost always puts a scare into people who live in nearby single-family neighborhoods."

As in many places, Sloatsburg residents opposed to townhouse developments said that single-family projects would be fine. Kern pointed to a planned development of large houses in Tuxedo, the next village north along Route 17.

"Why can't we have that, and attract the same level of housing?" Kern asked. "They would not have to be $350,000 houses - $250,000 would be fine."

The reasons for the suburbs' nearly universal resistance to townhouses is not hard to find, said James Hughes, dean of the School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. Prosperity and aging boomers have brought a change in the housing ideal, away from the "free and easy" life promised by townhouse advertising 20 years ago, to a more settled outlook.

"The dominant force in residential land-use matters is the baby-boom generation, and to a large extent they have now settled into communities where they are in for the long haul," Hughes said.

"That's where they have decided to raise their children, that's where they made that big investment, and they are not only intent on protecting their investment, they are also getting nostalgic, looking back at grandma's house and grandma's community of single-family houses in a small-town setting - even if they themselves grew up in much tackier surroundings," Hughes said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.