3/16/2001, The New York Times
EASTCHESTER, N.Y., March 16 - Suburban communities are grappling with a new quandary as houses continue to mutate into ever-larger forms: 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 country are scrambling to find ways to rewrite zoning codes to restrict the size of new houses and additions to existing houses.
The result is pitting neighbor against neighbor and town against resident, while taxing the ingenuity of municipalities that often lack the tools, or will, to limit house size. And it is leading to drawn-out battles that fray nerves.
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 limited house size only through generous setback rules, which require the sides of a house to be a certain number of feet from the property's borders. The town first imposed minor limits on size four years ago, but last fall it brought out the hacksaw, making further reductions.
"We recognize that the market today is for larger homes, and we want to keep Eastchester part of the market, but we don't want to allow these gargantuan houses," Mr. Cavanaugh said.
The ascendancy of the megahouse reflects a nationwide trend, one that began in California in the late 1980's and spread in the last decade. United States census information shows that the average size of a new single-family house sold in 1999 was almost 10 percent larger than it was a decade earlier, while the average yard size 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 neighbors 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, sort of like planting a sequoia in a cherry grove.
In the village of Scarsdale, N.Y., the Committee for Historic Preservation has received applications to raze 15 houses since July, and the committee members, required to hew to specific criteria, have approved all but two.
One of the two -- and a current flashpoint -- is a 1920's colonial-style house on a half acre at 270 Fox Meadow Road. The owners, a builder and an investor, want to tear it down and replace it with two new houses, each larger than the original. Last Monday, the village's Board of Architectural Review denied the partners permission to demolish the house. But with subdivision approvals already in hand, the owners are now appealing to the Village Board, which has overturned decisions by the Architectural Review Board in the past.
Everyone is girding for an extended fight.
"One reason people move to Scarsdale is the open green spaces," said Robert F. Schoetz, a 32-year-old Manhattan transplant who lives across the street. "This destroys the neighborhood."
Responding to the spate of subdivisions, the Scarsdale Village Board 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 lower 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.
Nearby, the village of Mamaroneck recently took steps to restrict footprint and square footage. Before the law was enacted, someone could build a 14,000-square-foot house on a half acre. Now, the maximum size allowed on that lot is 7,000 square feet. And the amount of house allowed on a quarter acre has shrunk from 7,000 square feet to 4,500 square feet.
But the restrictions would not prevent the very houses that led to the zoning changes in the first place, like two homes on Frank Avenue that tower over their neighbors. The mayor of Mamaroneck, Deborah Chapin, said the village still needed to do more work on the issue. "I don't think we can rely only on a mathematical formula," she said. "We need to give the Architectural Review Board objective criteria about the surrounding neighborhoods so that we don't end up with houses that are out of character."
In the New York region, the phenomenon is certainly not limited to Westchester County. In North Hempstead on Long Island, the Town Board attacked the issue in late 1999 on several fronts: reducing allowable height, increasing setbacks on sideyards and lowering caps on total house area for most lots, among other things. In New Jersey, a few pioneering towns placed limits on overall size years ago, only to return with tougher zoning amendments later, as the borough of Demarest did in 1996.
In Connecticut, the town of Greenwich took action in late 1998, imposing limits on overall square footage in its two- and four-acre zones for the first time.
Previously, builders had to adhere only to setback requirements. Now, a new house on two acres cannot exceed 7,800 square feet, while a new house on four acres cannot exceed 11,000 square feet. In all other residential zones, the town trimmed the maximum floor area of new homes by 10 percent.
Builders are wary of the toughening postures of municipal boards. In Scarsdale, Shlomo Freidfertig, a developer who hopes to tear down two houses and replace them with six, said that by crimping house size, local governments were contradicting consumer demand and meddling with home values.
"I am frustrated," said Mr. Freidfertig, a resident of Scarsdale for 21 years. "Our home is our asset, our future, our retirement, and when you come in and put a restriction on a piece of property, it's interfering with people's rights and reducing the value of the property."
Mr. Freidfertig voiced a common rationale among builders: that the values of existing houses rise when a larger one is built. "Those neighbors opposed to my subdivisions are going to benefit the most because I'm bringing the whole neighborhood up," he said.
Try telling that to Ken Gogarty, who now sees a tall brick house from his backyard in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. where he used to see woods. The new house on Shady Lane, at 3,054 square feet, is only 20 percent larger than the raised ranches and other houses nearby. But because it was built on a bluff, it looms over its neighbors.
"It looks like a public school in New York City," said Mr. Gogarty, a construction manager whose own 19th-century Victorian seems doll-sized by comparison. "It's depressing. It makes me feel like moving."
Planning experts say a weakening economy could slow the numbers of large new houses being built. But they caution that the pressures will continue.
"Basically, what people want is almost like a free-standing condo where they don't have attached walls," said Lester D. Steinman, director of the Edwin G. Michaelian Municipal Law Resource Center of Pace University in White Plains. "It's funny because the whole concept of going to suburbia originally was to have a little bit of open space."