Curbs crop up on building of McMansions

Houses out of scale with communities cause increasing consternation

April 15, 2001|By Lisa W. Foderaro | Lisa W. Foderaro,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

EASTCHESTER, N.Y. - As houses continue to mutate into ever larger forms, suburban communities are grappling with a new quandary: How big is too big, and what can suburban communities do to try to rein in the monster house next door?

In recent years, oversized homes - labeled McMansions by some - have spread from spacious gated enclaves to close-in suburbs, where they often dwarf their neighbors. Now, town officials, urban planners and irate neighbors in suburbs across the United States are scrambling to find ways to rewrite zoning codes to restrict the size of new houses and additions to existing ones.

This is pitting neighbor against neighbor and town against resident, while taxing the ingenuity of municipalities that often lack the tools, or the will, to limit house size. And it is leading to drawn-out battles that fray nerves.

"When you look out your doorstep and see houses that are 2,200 square feet, that presents a certain picture," said Jim Cavanaugh, supervisor of Eastchester, a town in Westchester County with a mature housing stock. "Suddenly, when there might be houses that are twice that size, people feel closed in and the neighborhood doesn't seem as open and airy."

In late 1999, Eastchester imposed a building moratorium and charged a committee with reviewing the town's zoning code. Like many towns and villages, Eastchester had historically limited the size of a house only through generous setback requirements, in which the sides of a house had to be a certain number of feet from the property's borders.

The town first imposed minor limits on house size four years ago, but last fall it brought out the hacksaw, making further reductions.

A nationwide trend

The ascendancy of the megahouse reflects a nationwide trend that began in California in the late 1980s and has spread in the last decade. U.S. census information shows that the average new single-family house sold in 1999 was almost 10 percent larger than a decade earlier, while the average yard was 13 percent smaller.

As a result, from Pasadena, Calif., to Newton, Mass., zoning laws have been amended with the aim of controlling housing bloat through complex restrictions including floor-area ratios, demolition limits, and upper-story setbacks.

Land-use experts and residents watching from behind picket fences say the impulse to put the maximum amount of house on an eighth or quarter of an acre disrupts the visual rhythm of an older street, like planting a sequoia in a cherry grove.

In the village of Scarsdale, N.Y., the Committee for Historic Preservation has received applications for 15 houses to be torn down since July, and the committee members, required to follow specific criteria, have approved all but two.

One of the two - and a current flashpoint - is a 1920s colonial on a half-acre. The owners, a builder and an investor, want to tear it down and replace it with two new houses, each larger than the original.

The village's Board of Architectural Review recently denied the partners permission to demolish the house. But with subdivision approvals already in hand, the owners are now appealing to the village's board of trustees, which has overturned decisions by the architectural review board in the past.

Everyone is girding for an extended fight.

`Destroys the neighborhood'

"One reason people move to Scarsdale is the open green spaces," said Robert F. Schoetz, a 32-year-old New York City transplant who lives across the street. "This destroys the neighborhood."

Responding to the spate of subdivisions, the Scarsdale board of trustees recently rezoned four areas of the village to increase minimum lot sizes. In the meantime, the village is re-examining its zoning code, considering an approach that would cap total square footage but would also include area bonuses for design features like tucking the garage in the back of the house.

Of course plenty of people want big houses, complete with soaring arched windows and spacious great rooms; hence their popularity. And not everyone is convinced that aesthetics is the only thing at issue in the disputes. Alfred A. Gatta, Scarsdale's village manager, suggests that the fury of neighbors does not always hinge on questions of scale and character.

"No one wants a house bigger than theirs, and they scream," he said. "Down deep, the thinking is `I don't want anyone to have a house better than mine.'"

The potential for conflict was a motivating force in Pelham Manor, a village in Westchester County where only a few houses had grown uncomfortably large through additions. Last year the village board amended its local zoning code to limit the footprint of a house, as well as that of a swimming pool or detached garage, to a certain percentage of the lot.

"You'd rather have the ordinance on the book than try to do it after the horse is out of the barn," Mayor John S. Kiernan said.

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