Revolt Against the McMansions

Fairfax City Council is moving closer to restricting the construction of over-sized buildings in established neighborhoods that would visually overwhelm existing houses. According to The Fairfax County Times, options include:

  • Restraining the size of a house’s footprint compared to the overall lot size.
  • Limiting large sections of flat wall surfaces on house exteriors
  • Providing pattern books of house plans and recommending architectural features for every neighborhood in the city
  • Limiting the overall height of a house using a mechanism called “angle of bulk plane,” which would require successively higher floors to be set farther and farther back from the street.

This strikes me as a legitimate form of zoning. Erecting McMansions that overshadow neighboring houses disrupts the neighborhood fabric and hurts property values for all. Property owners should be allowed to build bigger houses in locationally desirable neighborhoods, but the changes should be incremental, not disruptive.

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8 responses to “Revolt Against the McMansions”

  1. My Alexandria Neighborhood has smaller, old 40’s and 50’s homes on large lots, mostly a half acre or more, but also a section of quarter acre lots.

    These are now being upsized with additions, second storeys, or sometimes complete teardowns. The additions are sometimes done well and sometimes awful. (A two storey modern addition with vinyl siding grafted on to the end of a traditional brick home.)

    One old home was a Sears and Roebuck kit home, which is a real collectors item in terms of architectural history. It was a two story blockish kind of thing, but not unattractive. The owner duplicated it nad then joined the two houses with a center section or hall of some sort. It sounds ghastly, but it actually worked quite well.

    Othe owners have also made nice conversions, but some are just hideous, slapped up without design or thought.

    There is one case where a true monster home is being built right next to what can only be described as a shack. In the quarter acre section some new homes are probably larger than the lot they stand on.

    I can understand restraining the footprint compared to the lot size. Providing pattern books with recommendations tailored to each neighborhood makes sense if we view it as suggestions and education only.

    I’m concerned that if the aesthetics police take over the zoning law we will lose out on the charm that comes from having an eclectic mix of homes, ideas, and tastes in the neighborhood. I’d point to Nantucket or Williamsburg as examples. Everthing has to meet a certain style, so in Nantucket you have new homes that attempt to meet the local or historical style but don’t, quite. As a result you come up with a faux Nantucket flavor and the old town charm is mostly lost, or at least subsumed.

    But if you are putting up a large addition or a McMansion, I’m not sure how you do that incrementally. I’m content to let people build more or less what they want, if they screw up, it affects mostly their own pocket.

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar

    JAB, You raise a good point. I’m torn between my libertarian principles and respect for property rights on the one hand, and a recognition that an individual’s action on his property has impact on the values of his neighbors’ property. Does a property owner have the “right” to leave an open cesspool in his back yard? Obviously not. It’s a public health issue. Does a property owner have the “right” to let a pack of dogs in his back yard bay at the moon all night? Maybe not. It’s a public nuisance. Does a property owner have the “right” to let his front yard grow high with weeds? Or a “right” to dump old bicycles, tires and refrigerators in his back yard? Reasonable people would disagree.

    Ownership in a piece of real estate represents a bundle of socially sanction rights. Ownership does not bequeath the right for the owner to do whatever he or she wants to do. The question is this: Where do you draw the line? Most people would agree that property owners cannot do things that endanger the health and safety of their neighbors. Some would agree that they cannot do things that constitute a public nuisance. Why, then, should property owners have the right to do things that clearly diminish the property values of their neighbors?

    I don’t know the answer. But I think it’s a legitimate question.

  3. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    I like the line where it is now. Laws about health, safety, nuisance – all those things which go beyond the metaphorical swing of an individual’s fist and light on his neighbor’s nose.

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Some of these McMansions are so huge that they physically block all direct sunlight from neighboring houses. An acquaintance of mine has spent thousands of dollars on landscaping over the years and the property is just beautiful. Or it was — until the lack of sunlight caused by the new giant house next door killed everything that is not heavily shade tolerant.

    But I guess he should just smile and be ever so glad that his neighbor’s property rights are fully intact. Too bad his aren’t.

  5. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    Anon: Your property rights don’t extend to another’s property. It’s a free country. Move to a larger lot, covenanted community, or plant shade tolerant plants.

    You don’t have a right to tell you neighbor what to do or not to do. It’s called freedom.

  6. Ownership does not bequeath the right for the owner to do whatever he or she wants to do. That includes telling the neighbors what they may or may not do.

    The question is where do you draw the line.

    Clearly we can draw the line where public health and safety is concerned. After that, w usually draw the line at the property line.

    If you want to control what happens on the lot next door, then you should buy it, or form a corporation with your other neighbors and buy it together. Or have the government raise taxes enough to buy it.

    I agree there are legitimate questions, but my overall feeling is that bogus complaints have taken way too much sway. We seem to have gotten to a place where just because you got there first, you think you can control what happens next.

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Some communities have height restrictions for commercial.

    You could do this for residential… but I suspect that most of the McMansions are no taller than other 2-story homes.

  8. The latest comment is 3 years old so I am taking a chance that this blog is still active. The comment by James Atticus Bowden, posted 11/19/06 carried this libertarian ethos to the outermost limits of sensibility…and beyond. Bowden says "You don't have a right to tell a neighbor what to do or what not to do. It's called freedom." Well, this is patently incorrect. If a neighbor plays music late into the night at a decibel rate that threatens the health of the people who live nearby, does Mr. Bowden think that this is acceptable? Should those disturbed by the noise simply move somewhere else, as Bowden suggested in another of his postings? We live in a society where hopefully one takes notice of the people living around you and reaches a compromise between allowing one's unfettered desires to run rampant and taking into consideration the social contract.

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