Recurring issues with teardown McMansions

What if a suburban community continues to face the same issue of teardown McMansions angering neighbors? The case of Arlington Heights, Illinois:

Elgas called the home dimension differences “a form of gentrification” and asked the board to consider changing the building codes to prevent the number of larger homes being erected in Arlington Heights…

“This is not the first time it has come up as a phenomenon in Arlington Heights,” said Mayor Tom Hayes. “It’s probably 10 to 15 years ago this phenomenon first showed itself, not just in the village of Arlington Heights, many neighboring municipalities experienced the same issue with tear downs. We were sensitive to the issue at the time; we did a number of different things from legal, building, zoning and design, we addressed it at that point.”…

Charles Perkins, director of planning and community development, said the village had a task force that studied this issue with members from the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Plan Commission and village trustees. The leaders took bus tours around neighborhoods to view the tear downs and changes. As a result, he said, there were a number of changes made to village codes.

“We reduced the number of square footage you could put on a home, minimized impervious surface, and in the R3 district, which is this particular neighborhood, there was a 10 percent reduction on the ability of square footage of a home built on the lot,” Perkins said. “Those in single-story neighborhoods, typically go to the design commission for the architectural component of the home as well.”

This is not an issue facing just Arlington Heights: wealthier suburbs with older housing stocks can often be attractive to residents who have the means and desire to tear down older homes and construct new and often larger homes. And the teardowns can move in cycles, depending on changes in the housing market, what neighborhoods or communities are desirable, and how communities – including local leaders and neighbors – respond to such moves.

Three additional thoughts:

  1. The term McMansion is not used the article but this is the sort of home that is at issue here. A teardown home with a large footprint constructed in a neighborhood of smaller homes fits clearly within an understanding of McMansions.
  2. The community has some guidelines for new teardowns but not all neighbors think these go far enough. This is a common point of tension: should the property owners have say over their plot of land or should the community and neighbors be able to put in significant restrictions? Who gets more say can become a long local political process with the possibility for long-term bitterness.
  3. While neighbors might generally not like this development, this could be taken as a sign by leaders of a community that their community is desirable. Particularly in communities with limited opportunities for greenfield development, teardowns and infill development can represent a significant portion of change.

Suburban treehouse illustrates typical NIMBY debates

A man in Arlington Heights, Illinois built a fairly large treehouse in his backyard: “It has a wraparound deck, two levels, small windows, siding and roofing that mimics the family home’s.” It drew the attention of several neighbors who then complained to the village who subsequently passed new regulations for treehouses. However, since this treehouse was built before the new regulations, it can stay put.

This could just be a local issue except that the pattern of events fits many NIMBY discussions in suburban communities. Here are some of the comments made by people involved in the story:

Village Manager Bill Dixon said treehouses have not been a major issue in town and urged the village board not to overreact to one particular case, no matter how bad.

“There are 18,000 single-family homes in town, but this is the only one we’re hearing about,” he said.

But Trustee Thomas Glasgow, who lives in the neighborhood, said the treehouse is overwhelming. He believes property values in the area have diminished as a result.

At Glasgow’s recommendation, the board agreed to limit the structures to the height of the home on the property.

Mayor Arlene Mulder expressed concern, however, that the code could effectively ban treehouses for some properties.

But Trustee Joseph Farwell said: “Sometimes, you can’t build exactly what you want where you want it because you live in a community.”…

But Piotrowski [one of the neighbors], who spoke at a recent village board meeting, said the new rules don’t go far enough. He wants to see the houses banned all together because he believes they are not safe.

For his part, Belmonte said the whole conflict could have been avoided if Piotrowski had raised his concerns right from the start.

In one story, you have many of the elements of a typical NIMBY issue: a person does something with their property that some neighbors do not like. These neighbors argue the action reduces property values and raises safety concerns. The community ends up creating new regulations to avoid such issues in the future while knowing that they may be limiting people from doing similar things. The property owner says that if the neighbors had simply come to him first, none of the rest of this had to happen.

The key quote to me comes from one of the village trustees: “Sometimes, you can’t build exactly what you want where you want it because you live in a community.” This is true – communities have all sorts of regulations and zoning in place to help limit some of these issues. And much of this has been codified even further in homeowners associations that really limit some of the possible actions by individual owners. Homeowners submit to these regulations because they don’t want to have to worry about what their neighbors might do and to protect their all important housing values. But the enduring question from this story and other similar cases is this: where does a community draw the line between the rights of individual property owners and the interests of neighbors and the rest of the community? At least in Arlington Heights, future treehouse builders will be more limited in what they construct in order to balance these two competing interests.