When a suburb dismantles a plane in a homeowner’s driveway

You don’t see too many airplanes parked on the typical suburban street but this incident in New York may serve as a warning to those interested in just that:

A 70-year-old Long Island man who allegedly ignored 17 summonses calling for him to remove a plane parked in his driveway threatened to use a crossbow on town officials who dismantled it.

Crews spent most of the day Thursday disassembling the single-engine Cessna parked outside Harold Guretzky’s home in Oceanside, ending a 1½-year saga that pitted Guretzky against his neighbors and the town…

Town officials said housing the aircraft in Guretzky’s driveway violates building safety codes…

Last year, Guretzky likened it to parking a boat in a driveway and has said he didn’t have money to house the plane in a hangar. Some neighbors, however, said there’s no comparison.

What a production that included local officials giving a press conference in front of the plane in the driveway of street of raised ranch homes. The main reason given for removing the plane was safety but no one said exactly why it was a safety hazard. The owner compares it to a boat and the safety issues there could be similar: large gas tanks just sitting there. Presumably, he is not going to try to take off on the suburban street (though wide streets of many recent suburbs would help avoid clipping mailboxes).

My guess is that this is more of an eyesore/property values issue. For similar reasons, communities may not allow RVs or work trucks to be in driveways. Is a plane that is rarely used really more of a safety hazard than a large truck? However, it does look unusual (particularly with the wings spread out) and probably draws the ire of some neighbors who are worried about potential homebuyers or outsiders getting the wrong idea about the block.

One solution is for Guretzky to find a suburban airplane subdivision. They do exist: see the example of Aero Estates in NapervilleAero Estates in Naperville.

Defining a McMansion, Trait #2: Relative size

When I tell people that I have published about McMansions, the same question almost always arises: “What exactly is a McMansion?” My paper defining the McMansion answers this but in a series of posts here, I want to update the definition based on what I have seen in the last five years.

While McMansions are certainly larger than normal, in certain circumstances they can appear even larger than their square footage: when constructed next to smaller homes (often teardowns, sometimes infill properties) or when squeezed onto small lots (so that the homes seem to be bursting off the property). While I know the second case does happen quite a bit, most of the McMansion coverage of this trait in recent years focuses on teardown properties. Some patterns I’ve observed:

  1. The typical case involves someone from outside the neighborhood purchasing an older home (often a postwar house), demolishing it, and constructing a significantly larger home and/or a home that has a different architectural style than nearby homes. This one picture is a great illustration. Note that the new home does not necessarily have to be over 3,000 square feet or even include the worst McMansion architecture; it just has to be different from the existing homes.
  2. Media coverage of teardown McMansions is overwhelmingly negative. This is likely the issue only comes up neighbors upset over the construction of a teardown McMansion start looking for ways to stop the construction or limit future construction. On the flip side, it is hard to know how many teardown McMansions are constructed without much furor.
  3. It is hard to know exactly what motivates neighbors to complain so vociferously about teardown McMansions. Americans seem to want the ability to buy new homes in good neighborhoods (balancing modern features with valuable locations) but don’t like what it happens to them. The complaints often fall into two camps. First, those who live directly adjacent to a teardown may have a range of new issues to confront: people able to see in their windows, a hulking property next door, losing sunlight, the older home now looking dated or different. Second, the larger issue is often couched in terms of the character of the neighborhood. People feel that when they move to a particular place, that street or neighborhood should stay similar – after all, they liked its features enough that they moved there. A teardown McMansion threatens that.
  4. The fights between neighbors can be quite contentious, a rarity in many suburban communities where middle-class decorum suggests conflict avoidance is best. Lawuits occur (example and example), and some neighbors may even pool their resources to buy a nearby home and save it from being torn down. But, if the foundation of American life is owning a home, perhaps it is not surprising that such conflict arises when owners perceive their home to be under threat. See my six steps for responding to a nearby teardown McMansion.
  5. These conflicts often involve local officials. Numerous communities across the United States have guidelines for teardowns (see the example of Austin several years ago and Los Angeles more recently). Outside of historic preservation districts, these guidelines typically limit the size of the new home (through guidelines like a Floor Area Ratio) and/or provide guidance on particular architectural features.
  6. The teardown debates tend to put local officials in a strange position. Whose rights should they defend? Property owners? If so, do they want to allow long-time residents to have a voice in shaping their own neighborhoods or do they want individual owners to be able to sell their property at a good profit? Can they openly support builders and developers? I suspect most communities want to – growth, particularly high-end houses, is an important marker of vitality – but you don’t want to always run roughshod over your constituents. Teardowns are most common in neighborhoods and communities that are already well off – see recent evidence from the Chicago region – and this tends to pit already well-off community members versus well-off outsiders.

Teardown McMansions are a subset of McMansions as a whole, often constructed in desirable neighborhoods and sometimes raising the ire of neighbors and concerned citizens. Balancing the rights of neighbors and property owners will likely continue to be a sticky issue for many local governments.

What to do if “a McMansion is going up next door”

If a McMansion is built next to existing houses, what can neighbors do?

“It’s built so much higher than my house, virtually every window looks out into my backyard,” she says. Desperate to protect her privacy, she planted Italian cypress trees as a natural barrier. She tried to reason with the builder, whose unsympathetic response was: “Shouldn’t everyone be able to build their dream home?”

What’s going on in Mountain View is an extreme version of a problem cropping up all over the country: Huge houses are being built on plots of land originally meant to accommodate smaller dwellings, sparking a heated debate over what’s best for the community. Some argue that owners of larger homes pay more taxes, which can benefit all. But if your home happens to have its air and light blocked by a behemoth next door, you would likely be very, very upset — and can most likely kiss the idea of cashing out on your home sale goodbye…

A similar drama is playing out in Arcadia, CA, where more than 30 homes larger than 5,000 square feet (some as large as 8,000 — 9,000) have been proposed in the 850-home community over the past six years. In response, a group of longtime residents formed Saving Arcadia, which is currently battling the municipal government and City Council. Its argument: Overly lenient rules for developers have led to the proliferation of McMansions on lots that were zoned back in the 1950s for smaller homes. Plus, these oversize dwellings overburden the city’s water, gas, electricity, and other utility services…

Another option is finding a creative solution. One example is building downward (if a property is set on a hill) in order to increase square footage while preserving neighboring views, which is increasingly happening in various areas near Newport Beach. So maybe there’s hope that we can all play nice after all?

A homeowner who doesn’t like the nearby McMansion has a number of options available to them – these are sorted roughly in order of severity:

  1. Talk to the neighbor and builder. Might they be willing to make changes? They don’t have to but perhaps they are also unaware of what neighbors think of their actions.
  2. Modify your own lot or house to avoid having to see the new dwelling (if this is possible given its new size). For example, buy some artificial plants.
  3. Fight for local regulations. Many communities (see examples like Austin and Los Angeles) have considered rules about teardowns in recent decades and try to balance the interests of property owners versus those of neighborhoods. A variety of tools can be used including design guidelines, lot to house size ratios, approval processes, and historic districts.
  4. Buy up the properties that may become McMansions. This requires money but then you can control the fate of the nearby properties. See examples here and here.
  5. Sue your neighbor. You have to have resources to fight this out and it is likely to sour relations for a long time. But, some neighbors choose this option. See an example here.
  6. Move away. This is what the resident in this particular article does. This may be a last resort option or one favorable to those who don’t like open conflict (which is often minimized in suburbia).

In many places, the teardown McMansion cannot be stopped, particularly if there are not existing guidelines which are likely based off earlier cases or if the neighbor is not independently wealthy. Still, the neighbor who does not like it can pursue a number of options and each is likely to affect their relationship with the teardown neighbor.

Man ups ante in zoning battle by allowing the KKK to use his property

There are many ways to wage war with your neighbors but one Georgia man has a unique technique:

Bill Torpy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution visited the Six Hills subdivision in tony Milton, Georgia, to get to the bottom of things. “For a decade,” Torpy writes, “the owners of a mostly land-locked 24-acre parcel in Six Hills have tried to develop the property and have gotten increasingly frustrated in getting turned down.” The latest owner is one Douglas Hay, whose own development proposal was rejected by the city of Milton and who has responded by (reportedly) letting pigs run free on the land, hiring a loud truck to annoy a neighbor, and now renting space to the Loyal White Knights of the KKK.

“We go out there, it’s open for our members to camp out, to target practice, to have our meetings because we’re a religious organization,” a KKK rep said.

Hay bought the land for $900,000 and now says his “feud” with the neighborhood/city will end if he can sell it for $2 million. Just a reasonable regular businessman, this Douglas Hay.

This goes beyond buying a nearby property to avoid a teardown or going to court. Presumably, the tactic is intended to threaten the property values of neighbors who will then cave to the plans for the property. Bring in one of the most reviled groups and see how the neighbors like that! The community of Milton is well-off: the median household income is nearly $111,000. Then, the question becomes how long the neighbors can wait Hay out. Or, perhaps they can mount a counteroffensive including demonstrations and negative publicity for the landowner? It sounds like the various actors can draw on a number of resources to win this zoning battle.

Can powerful storms improve neighborhood relations?

Amid the tremendous snowfall on the East Coast, one might wonder: does a storm of that size bring people together?

A 1998 study looks at the short- and long-term effects of a major ice storm in the northeastern New York community of Potsdam. The storm completely totaled the area’s electrical grid and left many homes without power for two weeks in the dead of winter. The sociologist Stephen Sweet compared a survey on community perceptions administered three years prior to the storm to one administered just one month after it. After the storm, Potsdam residents saw their town as a more caring, friendlier, and more interesting place. But perceptions of Potsdam quickly returned to normal.

“When structure changes out of its normal form, behaviors shift and new types of social relations quickly emerge,” Sweet writes. (Think: snowmen in Hell’s Kitchen; plows kindly swerving to avoid them.) “However, once structure returns to its customary form, perception of social relations shift back in accordance with the familiar,” the sociologist concludes. (Read: as the snow melts, New Yorkers will return to being buttheads.)

Other research suggests that the degree of post-storm kindness is entirely dependent on the preexisting cohesion of the urban community. In 2013, the sociologist Eric Klinenberg took a close look at a deadly 1995 Chicago heatwave, which killed 739 people. Sadly and unsurprisingly, the neighborhoods that lost the most people were black and poor. But they were also markedly less socially cohered. The Englewood area, where the most people died, was one that had lost 50 percent of its population between 1960 and 1990…

In other words: Disaster preparedness helps, but whether a city can ride out a crisis also depends on interpersonal relationships. “Social cohesion is a critical component of building resilience,” Judith Rodin, the head of the Rockefeller Foundation and former president of the University of Pennsylvania, told The Atlantic last year. “You can look at communities that are literally adjacent and see a difference. Resilience is about building these capacities before the storm, before the shocks, before the stresses.”

Klinenberg’s book Heat Wave is an interesting look at this topic. As suggested above, factors including prior social relationships, race and class, and the connection of particular neighborhoods to the larger community as a whole matter.One interpretation of the research presented above: nature might do its own thing but social interactions and community life are pretty durable.

But, I wonder if the kind of and scale of disaster also matters at all. One thing that is unique about storms is that everyone is affected and has little control over nature. The outcomes might be very different – think different neighborhoods of New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina – but everyone had to respond in some way. If I had to guess, I would think neighbors of similar backgrounds – class, race, etc. – might be more neighborly in the wake of a storm. Does a larger storm lead to more community togetherness (even if the blip is temporary) as opposed to one that doesn’t do as much damage or where the effects are more localized?

And if there is any increase in community togetherness for a little while, what does this get translated into? It is very unlikely to overcome deep seated social divides. Does it lead to different policies? A few impassioned local news stories or editorials praising the efforts of neighbors to help each other? In Heat Wave, Klinenberg discusses the responses of the city of Chicago which includes city-coordinated cooling centers for the public to use. But, it is another matter to ask whether such centers improve community overall.

When you spend $2 million to block a nearby McMansion

The Washington Post profiles several neighbors who saved their neighborhood from a McMansion – but now may be on the hook for a big amount of money.

They had seen home after home in Bethesda, Md., torn down, replaced by behemoths boasting high ceilings, multiple gables and soaring porticoes. So when a small 1940s Cape Colonial on Oldchester Road was about to go on the market last year — and already attracting the attention of a well-known McMansion developer — three neighbors designed a custom-built approach to save it.

They pooled $2 million to buy, modernize and resell the old house. They hope the updated brick Colonial, which they expanded from three to six bedrooms, will preserve the charm of their neighborhood and maybe even make them a modest profit.

But the group’s attempt to flip the house — on a street where a 1999 Harrison Ford movie was filmed — has yet to pay off. The now-renovated home at 7812 Oldchester Road in the Bradley Woods neighborhood of Bethesda has been on the market since late August, its price having dropped from nearly $2.4 million to $2.175 million…

But the Bradley Woods triumvirate — a senior Justice Department official, a real estate lawyer and a high-end home designer — remain confident they made the right decision, despite the property lingering on the market for 3 1/ months, longer than the two-month average for a Bethesda home.

What is missing in this story is the amount of money and wealth that is needed to even make this move: most Americans opposed to McMansions or other changes to their neighborhood or community could not simply buy the property and then try to make some money off of it. Instead, they have to either convince their neighbors that this isn’t in their best interest (and this is a tough case to make when so much money is on the line on what typically is most people’s biggest single investment in life) or go through the regulatory and legal process to attempt to block the teardown. All of this might lead to negative interactions as it pits property rights versus what the neighbors or community feel might be in their own best interests (and it often is about collective property values). But, if you have resources, you can just take care of the problem yourself.

Neighbors: keep gangster’s house or support replacement McMansion?

Tampa residents are facing a quandary: do they support two possible McMansions to replace the home of a notorious gangster?

The community is rallying around the five-bedroom, 2.5-bath house built in 1952 by Santo Trafficante Jr., a supposed gangster who ran casinos in pre-Castro Cuba as the head of one of the most powerful organized crime syndicates in Florida.

Parkland Estates residents are upset about an application asking the city to split the lot in two at the request of Trafficante’s surviving daughters, Mary Jo Paniello and Sarah Ann Valdez…

“They’ve always been good neighbors and this is kind of a slap in the face,’’ said Anneliese Meier, vice president of the Parkland Estates Civic Club, which vigorously opposes the plan. “No matter what the history is, it’s a gorgeous house and should be preserved.”…

She said splitting the lot might mean the 63-year-old house will be torn down to make way for two larger homes.

“That doesn’t fit the character of this neighborhood,’’ Meier said. “McMansions tear up the community. They are big houses on small lots. Nobody’s happy about it. We’re tired of seeing this happen in our community.”

Both situations could leave the neighbors with some notoriety that they might think could threaten their property values. But, it is interesting that the neighbors quoted in this article think the McMansion is worse than the gangster: the family were good neighbors but a McMansion would pose a more important threat. Perhaps this suggests that neighbors think people are replaceable but the physical structure has a stronger impact. A broader question to ask many Americans would be: would you rather have a bad neighbor in a nice house that enhances the neighborhood or a bad house nearby with lovely neighbors?