Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Zoning changes seek to limit mansionization

Controversial issue pits neighbor against neighbor in some Rockville communities

E-mail this article \ Print this article

Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
The owners of these houses on Beall Avenue in Rockville disagree on whether such large structures should be permitted in some residential neighborhoods. The issue is one of many being considered during the overhaul of Rockville’s citywide zoning.
The sun rises late each morning in Robert Winfield’s back yard, feeding his rooftop solar panels less energy than it did two years ago.

The culprit is not daylight saving time. It’s his neighbor’s 41-foot-tall house.

The three-story brick home towers over Winfield’s modest Beall Avenue rambler, casting a shadow on his solar panels in the morning hours.

‘‘We got sunlight at about 10:30 Saturday morning,” Winfield said two weeks ago.

‘‘The last time I talked to them, I used the term monstrosity,” Winfield said, referring to his neighbor. ‘‘And we haven’t spoken since.”

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Emerson Lee, the owner of the neighboring home, says the brick structure improves property values and the aesthetics of the West End neighborhood.

His neighbor may not appreciate the house, but to Lee, it’s a dream home. The 65-year-old CPA said he worked with the architect to get a design he wanted.

He could have moved to Virginia, where he works, but Lee chose to stay in Rockville, where he raised his family.

Where the Winfields see so-called mansionization, Lee sees progress driven by market demand.

‘‘We should encourage people to build more beautiful homes and raise the standard of living,” he said.

Winfield and his family say they had no problem when they discovered a new neighbor would replace the adjacent rambler to the east with a larger home. But their mood changed when they discovered just how much larger it would be than their one-story home.

For Suzanne Winfield, the 41-foot height is the real problem.

‘‘It’s just discordant with everything else here,” she said, looking at the 6,600-square-foot home.

The Winfields, who live in their 1,500-square-foot home with their teenage daughter, are arguable more environmentally sensitive than the average Rockville family.

Installed to defer some of their home energy consumption, the solar panels produce about 30 percent less than they did before their neighbor arrived, Robert Winfield said.

In addition to the solar panels on their roof, they have electric and hybrid cars and track mileage and other energy consumption closely. Robert occasionally has the family turn off all the power and watch the electric meter run backwards, said Alie, the Winfield’s 16-year-old daughter.

The neighborhood debate goes to the heart of a larger discussion being played out in City Hall: How much should the city regulate development?

That question wasn’t a serious concern in past decades, when buildings didn’t come close to filling the lots on which they sat. But it is a concern now, as homeowners are choosing to rebuild their homes where they have lived for years instead of buying new homes elsewhere.

The issue of so-called mansionization, which for years has taken the spotlight in older communities in the county, such as Bethesda and Aspen Hill, is being considered by the Rockville Planning Commission as it ponders changes to the citywide zoning code put forth by the Representatives of Rockville Zoning Ordinance Revision (RORZOR) committee. The City Council has the final say.

Residents are split. While many say they want to halt excessively large homes that are disconnected to the character of the neighborhoods in which they’ve popped up, there are others who fear tougher zoning could prevent existing homeowners from improving their properties.

‘‘My biggest worry is holding back these neighborhoods,” Planning Commission Chairwoman Robin Wiener said at a recent meeting.

‘‘I worry about property rights. I also worry about neighboring cities. We may not be a competitive,” she added.

Disagreement has made it from the neighborhoods to commission.

‘‘Everybody has property rights,” Commissioner Kate Ostell said in an interview. ‘‘The guy with the solar panels that have been shaded out has had some of his property rights taken away.”

Mayor Susan R. Hoffmann says she respects property rights.

‘‘But clearly there are examples that would pop right into your head that are inappropriate for the neighborhood,” she said.

For the most part, the proposed zoning revision leaves residential neighborhoods unchanged in terms of development standards and density levels. Planned developments like King Farm and New Mark Commons are also exempted from the proposed changes.

Unhappy with the proposed zoning rewrite, Potomac Woods residents have asked to be included on that list.

At issue is a proposal designed to curtail mansionization, an idea much talked about by city politicians in recent elections.

The draft plan calls for reduced height of the homes, from 35 feet, as measured to the midpoint of the roof, to 32 feet, as measured to the peak.

The amount of permitted impervious surface, or ground surface into which water cannot seep, would be regulated for the first time on residential lots.

The proposed changes would not require alterations of existing homes exceeding code, but it falls short of grandfathering renovations and reconstruction projects.

If Lee’s home is substantially destroyed by a fire, for instance, he could not rebuild without changing the design to fit the new standards.

That is unfair, Lee says, pointing out that under the watchful eye of his neighbors, his home was built in compliance to city standards in 2006.

In most residential neighborhood zones, the total floor area of the structure cannot exceed roughly one-third of the lot size, or 3,000 square feet of floor area, whichever is larger.

Lee’s home occupies 6,672 feet of floor area over three above-ground stories. It sits on a 9,250–square-foot lot, meaning the house is twice as large as the new plan would allow.

Even if Lee were to receive a special consideration allowed in the draft plan increasing the floor area to half the size of the lot, his house is still far too dense for the narrow West End lot under the zoning proposal.

Making existing homes nonconforming is unfair, Lee said. Why retroactively penalize someone for building according to code, he asked.

‘‘If people make more money, let them build what they want,” he said.

The Planning Commission is considering increasing the proposed height.

Some have worried out loud about possible insurance and refinancing troubles owners of nonconforming properties would encounter. City planners admit that is a possibility, but point out that only a few dozen homes would probably be impacted by the zoning changes. No citywide survey has been done to determine the exact number.

In the coming weeks, the future of Rockville’s residential zoning will be debated by the Planning Commission and, starting in May, the City Council. Whatever the outcome, both sides of the mansionization issue say the new code should take into account market forces.

With rising energy prices, Winfield sees a need to turn to smaller, or at least greener, homes in the future. That idea is something for which Ostell would like to see more city incentives.

Lee has his own take on the future. In the coming years, Rockville’s location and amenities could result in an increase in the number of larger homes and less ramblers on Beall Avenue.

What would be fair zoning practice then, Lee asked. ‘‘Should we ask the small homeowners to move?”

This is the first in an occasional series of articles illustrating the zoning issues put forth by the Representatives of Rockville Zoning Ordinance Revision (RORZOR) committee.