Flag lots create a tight spot for civility

Economical setup can spur conflict

December 26, 2006|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN REPORTER

Hani Raza and her family of five live in a two-story house in Elkridge with a brick facade, blue shutters and a large, arching window that throws sunlight onto her foyer's polished wood floor.

It also has a close-up view of 10 other homes that encircle it.

The Razas' house sits on a "flag lot." By constructing homes behind other homes along a shared driveway, builders say they can put more homes on each acre, maximizing scarce real estate and bringing down prices for people willing to live in close proximity to neighbors. Critics say it's an unsightly way for developers to make more money.

"Some people love flag lots; some people hate them," said Ilene S. Kessler, president of the Maryland Association of Realtors. "Some people say, `Do not show me a house with a house behind it.' Others say, `This is what I want to spend. Show me anything I can afford.'"

Kessler said that flag lots are one way to reduce sprawl - by designing denser suburban communities or building in the pockets of vacant land in between existing residences - and generate more affordable home prices.

"Housing affordability is a hard nut to crack in this area," she said. "That's wrapped up in all of this. You can't have it both ways."

Coexistence in tight quarters also puts a premium on diplomacy.

Flag lot residents say they work through the inevitable irritations, such as a loss of privacy or driveways blocked by guests, with courtesy.

But neighborliness sometimes falters. For instance, discussion of a backyard pool sparked a seven-year feud in a Columbia community that still rages between the owners of a flag-lot home and the neighbors in front of them. Profanities have been exchanged, as have a plethora of lawsuits and criminal complaints, requiring more than 100 visits by Howard County police.

Hani Raza says she has experienced none of that rancor, and that the arrangement has its advantages. The neighbor across from her has a snowblower and clears the shared driveway, for instance.

"I have a nice neighborhood and it's so quiet in the morning especially," said Raza, whose family moved in six years ago from an Elkridge apartment and wanted to remain in Howard County for the schools. "Nobody's around. People go to work. I open up my blinds."

Still, facing her front door, the neighbor in the 1 o'clock position has installed a large in-ground pool surrounded by a tall, dark chocolate wooden fence, and the neighbor in the 3 o'clock position has erected white wooden stakes to prevent people from driving onto his lawn.

Driving through the Razas' Rowenberry Woods neighborhood, it is very clear that the landowner sold homes on every nook and cranny. There are no trees around the Razas' quarter-acre property.

Many homebuyers scoff at such designs - calling them the fulfillment of developers' greed - but Kessler of the board of realtors said flag lots also offer affordability, particularly in suburban areas where sought-after schools have become unattainable for many families.

The homes in Rowenberry Woods, for instance, sold in the low- to mid-$200,000s from 1998 to 2000, according to property records.

Kessler has lived in front of a flag lot in the Dorsey Hall Village of Columbia for 24 years. The setting, she said, gave her children the opportunity to play on a long driveway, rather than in the street. And the people behind her have a grown son who owns a lawn-care business. He clears snow in their shared driveway and cuts her grass.

The precise origin of the practice is murky. Richard Guardino, executive dean of the Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., said the arrangement is a post-1950s suburban phenomenon but couldn't pinpoint its genesis.

"I can tell you they're generally not favored," he said. "You create all kinds of issues when you run a driveway between two other homes. It's just a recipe for all kinds of conflict. When you clear snow from your driveway, are you just dumping it in someone else's front yard? Where do you put it?"

Builder Harry L. "Chip" Lundy, who constructed the homes involved in the Columbia feud but did not lay out the neighborhood, said it's important not to lump flag lots into one unseemly category.

Some buyers are willing to pay a premium for flag lots on golf courses or ones that abut wooded areas, which offer added privacy. Flag lots on longer, more secluded driveways can even offer an estate-style entrance.

However, he said money is the driving factor behind the construction of most flag lots - both for the builder, who stands to earn more, and the buyer, who stands to pay less.

"As a capitalist and a business person, who has made payroll for 30 years and given lots of people lots of jobs, we're going to build four homes on an acre as opposed to two if we can," Lundy said. "But when we build those homes, we don't have to charge $500,000 for each lot. We charge less."

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