More Than A Neighborhood: A Village Problem

More Than A Neighborhood: A Village Problem

Mansionization: A modern version of fencing the open range.

This is the third in a series on infill development.

There is an old adage that "the only thing constant in this life is change." That is no where more apparent than in land use.

And, the land use most dear to the hearts of most average citizens is their home.

When social change, alters the status quo of that sanctuary it sends out ripples that if not addressed in a responsible and thoughtful manner can turn into a tidal wave of rancor, distrust, legal and emotional confrontation. It can be the genesis for a realignment of both the political and governance landscape.

A prime example of this phenomenon is "infill development." And, more to the point — "residential infill development" that is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to change the basic character of a given neighborhood. It can become the pull thread responsible for unraveling an area's sense of community.

That is what is threatened in an array of neighborhoods throughout not only the Washington Metropolitan Area but also across the nation. Today's term for it, in many cases, is "Mansionization."

It refers to new homes being built in older neighborhoods that dwarf their neighbors. Structures that are two and three time the square footage of the houses around them. "McMansions" that are replacing existing houses or turning existing house, through additions, into something never envisioned when they were built.

This process can also turn previously congenial neighbors into adversaries. A prime example of this is the case reported on in Part II of this series. It involves the demolition of 2510 King Street, a 2160 square feet ranch style home built approximately in 1952/53. It was flanked by homes built some 30 years earlier.

Now the owners of the land at 2510 King, Charles and Catherine Hurley, is in the process of building a new home on the site. Upon completion it will be a three story, 38 feet high, 5,700 square feet structure.

Neighbors see it as a "McMansion." Hurleys see it as "no larger than some others in the neighborhood." Robert Evans, 2506 King St., and Marsha Roberts and Robert Rector, 2510 King St., neighbors on each side of the Hurley property, have taken issue to not only the size of the proposed new home but also to a variety of matters impacting the property as a whole. These have included the ability of the soil to hold the larger structure and an easement once shared by Evans and Hurley.

"We [Hurley and Evans] originally agreed to close the easement and plant grass," said Evans. It was originally established by the original land owner to provide access for the properties to the rear because at that time there was no alley, according to Evans.

However, that easement has turned into a legal bone of contention with both Evans and the Rectors claiming that if it is taken into consideration, Hurley lacks the necessary lot size to build the new home as planned. Hurley maintains the easement has long since fallen into legal oblivion.

"I am puzzled that Mr. Hurley continues to fret and speak inconsistently about the easement shared between the two properties. We did not protest when he put a fence down the center of the easement. Because the Hurley's had young children and we didn't expect the fence to be a permanent fixture, we did not require the fence to be removed," when we discovered it, Evans said.

"We thought we were being good neighbors, while long-time neighbors warned us that we should not let the fence stand. Mr. Hurley later used this action against us saying that it indicated our intent to legally vacate the easement and to reflect this release in the title to our property," he said.

WHEN THE CHARACTER of a neighborhood is perceived to be threatened it unleashes a torrent of issues that envelopes not only neighbors but also government officials. Last week a meeting was held at Alexandria City Hall between the various parties to the dispute as well as Arthur Dahlberg, director, Code Enforcement; Richard Josephson, deputy director, Planning and Zoning Department; City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa, and others.

"I think we had a great meeting in terms of explaining the various procedures that have been followed in approving this construction. There was some good dialogue among the residents," Dahlberg said of the gathering.

"Once people have a fuller knowledge of all the actions and considerations I think they are much better understood. But, I don't think there is any possibility of making everyone comfortable about this project," he said.

That was verified by Evans who felt the meeting had only served to clarify the complaints not alleviate them. As stated by the

by the neighbors, in an email from the "Gateway," the name they have adopted for their protest organization, their hope was to stop "the blatant disregard of the State of Virginia Regulations and the City of Alexandria Codes and Rules."

According to Dalhberg those two things have not been happening. "Everything has been done according to regulations," he said.

And, therein lies the problem in many cases of residential infill development — perception versus reality. It is not unique to Alexandria or even this entire metropolitan area.

IN NOVEMBER 2005 Arlington County adopted changes to its zoning ordinance to decrease the amount of lot coverage in a residential area. This applies not only to the residence but also accessory buildings and driveways.

Historically, Arlington County allowed homeowners to cover 56 percent of a lot's total area. The new provisions allow "the main house to occupy between 16 percent and 34 percent of the lot area," depending on lot size "and provide incentives for front porches and detached garages" in the rear, according to a comprehensive study by Alexandria Planning and Zoning Department entitled "Residential Infill Development."

Montgomery County, Md., has decided that their problem with infill development "was the height of homes." To address this they have lowered the height limit "in some zoning districts," the report notes.

In Fairfax County, addressing infill is an on-going process. They are looking at a series of potential changes to zoning regulations, "particularly in regard to lot coverage and methods of measuring height."

"In addition, the county is also looking at the potential for a neighborhood conservation overlay district and form based coding," the report states. Their problems are exacerbated by "vast acreage and large number of residential zones."

However, specific regulations may not be the answer to many infill issue, according to the report. It notes several other approaches being tried in other areas.

Norfolk, VA, is employing strategies of encouragement and education along with regulation. Within the last year they have established the Neighborhood Design and Resource Center which provides "a setting and program to address neighborhood and housing design issues."

As a reference for area builders and homeowners, Norfolk issued a pattern book on architecture, character and design in its older residential neighborhoods. It contains detailed guidelines on neighborhood patterns, architectural pattern, and landscape patterns.

Roanoke has established "Neighborhood Conservation Districts." A conservation district ordinance accomplishes its purpose by regulating new construction, major alterations or additions, and demolition, the report explains.

In many ways Roanoke's approach has long been established in Alexandria through the creation of the Board of Architectural Review. However, BAR's reach is only into those areas designated as "historic" such as the Old and Historic District and Parker Gray.

Alexandria Planning Commission, at its April meeting, proposed the expansion of the Old and Historic District to include a area bounded by upper King Street, Diagonal Road, Peyton and Dechantal streets. It was touted as "only the first step," by Eileen Fogarty, director, Planning and Zoning Department.

There are numerous residential infill problem cases outside Virginia. They have arisen in Illinois, California, New York, and New Mexico, to mention only a few. They usually occurred "because of the lack of transition with neighboring houses, oversized lots, underbuilt [overzoned] neighborhoods, narrow streets, and deductions allowed by the Floor Area Ration [FAR] rule," the report found.

IN THE SPRING OF 2005, the Journal of the American Planning Association published an article entitled, "Mansionization and Its Discontents" with a subtitle of, "Planners and the Challenge of Regulating Monster Homes."

It noted, "Single-family residential construction activity in the United States in recent years is striking not only because of increased house size, but because it often results in the replacement of an existing, older home that is much smaller."

The primary problem faced by government entities is "how to balance private property rights with the value of the established built environment held by many longer-term residents," the article queried. The conclusion was a somewhat frustrating, "its a work in progress."

On a sobering note, the article suggests that so-called "mansionization" is merely a manifestation of the fact, "Tradition as a regulator has disappeared" from our culture. This has resulted in "the disappearance of that spirit of cooperation which makes people respect the rights of adjoining people and their buildings, and ultimately the rights of the settlement as a whole."

Since the end of World War II home ownership has become a right of passage within middle class America. Prior to the creation of

Levittown, N.J., immediately after the war, only 10 percent of Americans owned their homes. Most, including those considered well positioned on the economic ladder, rented their residences.

As ownership evolved so did what became known as a sense of community. Residents with a financial stake in a particular neighborhood in many cases became the personification of that neighborhood. Some were new neighborhoods. Some were established neighborhoods with renters becoming owners.