In an area with little land to build new houses, residents are fighting the megahome — McMansions that balloon to the edges of their...
In an area with little land to build new houses, residents are fighting the megahome — McMansions that balloon to the edges of their properties, three-story giants that block views from quaint craftsman bungalows.
Seattle is considering new laws to limit the size of houses replacing those torn down on single-family lots. In Bellevue, residents came to a meeting with city staff Wednesday night to complain of huge homes that block out the sun and “overpower” the neighborhoods.
Those advocating restrictions say megahouses hurt the character and scale of single-family neighborhoods.
“There are a number of 1,000-square-foot houses and then, all of a sudden, along comes a 4,000-square-foot house and it just dominates,” said Ref Lindmark, an officer for the Green Lake Community Council in Seattle.
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A megahouse went up across the street from him, and one of its bedroom windows now looks down on a neighbor’s hot tub.
The rebellion against the supersized newcomer on the block is taking hold across the country. Austin, Texas; Marin County, Calif.; Queens, N.Y.; Atlanta, and Chevy Chase, Md., all have proposed new rules to limit house sizes.
But builders and some homeowners worry that government restrictions might constrain the housing market.
Cutting houses down to size
Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin is proposing changes to the housing code to reduce the size of single-family homes that can replace demolished houses. They include:
Lowering the height limit from 30 feet to 25 feet, or roughly from three stories to two stories.
Reducing lot coverage so that a new home cannot cover more than 35 percent of the lot. The current limit is 35 percent of the lot or 1,750 square feet, whichever is greater.
Banning consolidation of adjacent lots if houses are to be replaced with fewer buildings. The city would not issue demolition permits if an owner wanted to tear down two houses on two lots next to each other to build one house.
Source: Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin
Even though city planning is moving toward denser urban spaces, the demand for large homes outstrips supply, builders say.
A flush economy means there’s more money for people to invest in property, and with higher price tags, many buyers want more bedrooms and bathrooms.
Bellevue and Seattle aren’t the first cities in the region to struggle with megahomes.
Kirkland, Mercer Island and Hunts Point all limit houses’ square footage based on lot size, and Woodinville requires a special permit for most homes bigger than 8,500 square feet.
Seattle re-examines code
Seattle is just beginning to consider reducing the size allowed for single-family houses that replace demolished homes. About 330 single-family homes were torn down from 2003 to 2005, and most were replaced with larger homes, according to the city’s Department of Planning and Development.
Councilmember Richard Conlin has proposed three changes to the housing code, which has been in place since 1982:
• The height limit would shrink from three stories to two.
• The house could occupy up to 35 percent of the lot. Currently, homes can occupy 35 percent of the lot or 1,750 square feet, whichever is greater. As a result, a 1,750-square-foot home can now be built on a lot smaller than 5,000 square feet, and therefore cover more than 35 percent of the lot.
• Replacing multiple neighboring houses with fewer buildings would be prohibited. Buyers would not be able to purchase two adjacent single-family lots and replace two houses with one large home.
“I kept hearing, from neighborhoods around the city, concerns about megahouses,” Conlin said. “This is not concern about just new development or new houses, it’s specifically about a very small subset that’s way out of proportion with the neighborhood.”
The Department of Planning and Development is reviewing Conlin’s proposal, which he hopes to bring to the council this summer.
Builders object to parts of the proposed rules. “The one thing that really scares us right now is the height limit,” said Garrett Huffman, the South King County and Seattle manager for the Master Builders Association. He’s less concerned about the consolidation of lots and hopes to work on changing the provision for maximum lot coverage.
Upheaval in Bellevue
In Bellevue, the City Council last fall approved a study of megahomes and other livability issues after getting a growing number of complaints from longtime residents. The city found that about 430 homes were torn down and rebuilt between 2000 and 2006, and almost all of them replaced some green space with asphalt or concrete.
Megahomes are popping up primarily in the older Bellevue neighborhoods near downtown, where wealthy buyers are attracted to easy access to work, shopping and nightlife, city officials said. Most of the homes are built by developers who have bought the property from the original owners.
“It’s such a visible thing and such a dramatic change that it’s really got people’s attention,” said Cheryl Kuhn, the city’s head of neighborhood outreach.
The meeting with city staff Wednesday night drew about 50 people, most seeking to vent about megahomes and support some form of regulation.
Emmett Soffey said he watched a large, multistory home used for senior living rise up next to his 1950s-era house in the Lake Hills neighborhood. He planted tall trees to try to block residents from peering down into his home, he said, and discovered moss spreading in his backyard from the lack of sunlight.
“It’s a pretty thing to have happen to you,” Soffey said.
When megahomes are built, neighbors are inundated with construction noise, blocked driveways and crowds of workers, said Irene Drewry, who has lived in her home for 41 years.
“They just overpower the neighborhood and destroy any sense of community,” she said.
Claire Almquist, who has lived in her home for 48 years, said she wants limitations on megahomes but doubts city officials will take meaningful action.
“Bellevue likes big houses for the tax money,” she said.
Aaron Kirschbaum, though, said he worries new regulations would keep him from selling his 50-year-old home in the Surrey Downs neighborhood for its full value.
Some new homes will be built poorly, but any regulations would infringe on residents’ property rights, he said. “The price of freedom is some people are going to have bad taste.”
After the meeting with residents, Bellevue’s Planning Commission discussed how to regulate the homes without being overly restrictive. The commission will make a recommendation in the next couple of weeks, and the City Council could decide if it wants to move forward on regulations as early as next month.
After the Medina City Council took up the issue five years ago, it heard objections from some of the city’s most famous residents, including Amazon.com chief executive Jeff Bezos and Costco Wholesale co-founder Jeffrey Brotman.
The council scrapped any size limitations but approved stricter oversight of construction impacts, such as noise, traffic and dust.