Zoning Regulations Limit Size of New House

Associated Press Newswires
June 18, 2001

RIDGEFIELD, Conn. (AP) - Cheryl Gamber's house is comfortable. Her neighbors are close by, her children ride their bikes and scooters in the cul-de-sac with their friends. Sounds like a typical suburban setting.

Except Gamber's house measures a whopping 6,200 square feet, and those of her neighbors range from just under 5,000 square feet to nearly 7,000 square feet. It's an increasingly common scene in Ridgefield and in affluent neighborhoods around the country.

"As Americans aspire to more, and builders are in competitive situations to deliver more at a competitive price, they're trying to do that by putting more house on less land," said Richard J. Roll, president of the American Homeowners Association.

According to U.S. Census statistics compiled by the National Association of Home Builders, the average new single-family home sold in 2000 was 2,285 square feet - nearly 30 percent larger than in 1985.

But as the houses expand, the lots they sit on are shrinking. Numbers for 2000 were not available, but the average lot for a single-family home sold in 1999 was 12,910 square feet - more than 25 percent less than the 17,600-square-foot average in 1987.

Oswald Inglese, Ridgefield's director of planning, said the outsized homes are affecting the town's character.

"People just keep pointing out to me, `How come that house was allowed to happen? Look at the house next door; it was such a lovely home, and now it disappeared,"' Inglese said.

To combat the spread of so-called "McMansions," Ridgefield's planners adopted regulations last month that would restrict the size of new houses relative to the acreage they occupy.

The regulations decrease the percentage of a lot a building is allowed to cover and introduce a floor-area ratio that limits the square footage of a house.

With about 20,000 residents, Ridgefield is a cozy, affluent town with a country feel. Its Main Street is green and leafy, with a line of inviting store fronts and quaint old houses.

But not far off the main thoroughfare, down a narrow, winding road thick with trees, lies Golf Court - one of Inglese's pet peeves, and Gamber's home.

Gamber was hesitant to comment at first, because her house had been mentioned in a community newspaper article titled "McMansion" that derided large homes and their owners.

But the at-home mother of two maintains that her house fits with the town's character.

"In some towns the houses get kind of ornate and gaudy, but these are very traditional," she said. "It's nice to be near your neighbors. The kids play together. It's a nice, safe little street."

Other wealthy Connecticut towns are also considering the issue, including Darien - where new homes average more than 4,000 square feet - and Greenwich, where regulations were tightened in 1998.

But Larry Bradley, assistant town planner in Greenwich, said he both sides have a point.

"There are some people who feel that they are a detriment, but then there are others who feel they should be allowed to build whatever they are legally entitled to," he said.

Bill Voelker, Simsbury's director of community planning and development, comes down firmly on the side of the homeowner.

"A man's home is his castle - we all heard that one when we were kids," Voelker said. "Remember what country we live in - it's America. Should government be reaching its hand down and saying `Oh, that's big enough, there are half a dozen people who don't like your house?"'

Spokesmen for the National League of Cities and the National Association of Realtors said they did not have detailed information about municipal zoning trends. But both organizations said the issue is cropping up more and more often.

"It's likely that a lot of these municipalities couldn't have forseen this, and it may require a new look at some of their own zoning regulations," said Michael Reinemer, spokesman for the National League of Cities.

A few miles away from Golf Court, on a small pond, lies Lake View Estates - six houses of roughly 4,500 square feet each, some of which are no more than 50 feet apart.

These houses fall just within Ridgefield's new regulations, but resident Karen Ifert says they have been targeted by critics anyway.

Like Gamber, Ifert was at first reluctant to comment because a picture of her house had accompanied the "McMansion" article. She said the article contributed to unfair stereotypes about people who live in large homes.

"It's a first marriage for both of us. We go to church. I sing in the choir. We don't talk on cell phones. We're relatively OK," she said.

On the Net:

American Homeowners Association: www.ahahome.com

National Association of Home Builders: www.nahb.com

National League of Cities: www.nlc.org

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