When neighbors sue over a teardown McMansion

Can this end well? One Sioux Falls family sues their neighbors over the construction of a teardown McMansion and alleged violations of local ordinances:

In court documents, Pierce and Barbara McDowell charge that the new house is too close, too tall and negatively impacts use of their own property.

Not only does it block natural sunlight from reaching the McDowell house, the lawsuit charges, but the McDowells have been stopped from using their wood-burning fireplace because its chimney now is too close to the house being built by Joseph “Josh” Sapienza and Sarah Jones Sapienza…

The McDowells are asking for a permanent injunction to stop further construction at the Sapienza residence until it comes in compliance with the city’s 2013 Shape Places Zoning Ordinance and it is relocated so the McDowell house no longer violates the city’s Residential Code…

When completed, the Sapienza house at 1323 S. Second Ave., just south of the McDowell residence, will be a two-story single-family house containing almost 5,000 square feet. The permitted offset from property now is five feet, putting seven feet between the two houses…

The original house on the Sapienza property was multilevel with a total of 1,811 square feet on the main and upper levels. The lot measures 69 by 143 square feet. It had been built in the 1950s, and the Sioux Falls Board of Historic Preservation approved its removal from Second Avenue since it did not fit the neighborhood’s historic character. At a recent board meeting, however, two members referred to the new house as “a McMansion.”

To answer my own question, this cannot end well for all parties involved. The burden seems to be on the city to show that the proposed home did not violate any ordinances or guidelines. But, if it made it through the entire approval process even when neighbors had concerns, perhaps this won’t be difficult to demonstrate. Possible outcomes might include:

1. The neighbors are upset long-term feeling that the historic district is not protected or that the city doesn’t have a strong enough set of guidelines. Developing guidelines that will satisfy everyone can take quite a bit of time. Just look at Austin or Los Angeles.

2. The city feels like it can’t win in trying to balance competing interests. This is typically expressed as allowing collections of residents to have some control over their neighborhoods but also wanting individual homeowners to have some property rights (including pursuing teardowns). Such a lawsuit can take up time and money that could be better utilized elsewhere, particularly in an era of tight municipal budgets.

3. The property owners could have a tough time for years to come. If the lawsuit succeeds, how much do they have to change their home and at what cost? If the lawsuit fails, it is unlikely that the neighbors will suddenly like the home. I would be interested in reading a follow-up story in a few years to see if these owners are still living in the neighborhood.

At best, the disagreement between these neighbors will fade away and the city will have clearer guidelines that will help residents avoid such issues in the future. But, I would guess a more negative outcome is likely.

5 thoughts on “When neighbors sue over a teardown McMansion

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