The scary McMansions of Lake Parsippany and giving up property rights

One New Jersey resident is not happy about the arrival of a McMansion next door:

Suddenly, the sun is gone, you’re in its shadow, it’s coming closer and closer. You can feel it’s poorly portioned eyes glaring down at you. You try to make the creature out, but its stucco front and vinyl siding sides confuse you, and there’s the artificial stone surrounding its mouth.

No, this is not an early Halloween tale, it’s the McMansion next store…

This is America, and no one should dictate to you what you can do with your property, but when you choose to have every tree cut down, use every inch of a lot and build a home 3 times the size of the original dwelling, that disrupts other people’s lives and infringes on their rights.

I would have never bought my home knowing the house next to me would be knocked down. Why would I think, a perfectly fine 3 bedroom home would be destroyed? What attracted me to the street was that each house was a little different, and each home had a yard and mature trees.

I’ve been told it’s a way to showcase your wealth, but I only see ignorance and bad taste. McMansions do not make good neighbors, they’re downright scary.

This letter summarizes the crux of the issue with teardown McMansions: how should a community or individuals balance the right of homeowners to use their property as they wish versus what their neighbors would like? Who should win when “no one should dictate to you what you can do with your property” yet certain buildings can “disrupt other people’s lives and infringe on their rights”?

Many communities have adopted some sort of community guidelines that both limit the size of teardowns and try to nudge the new structures toward existing architectural styles. Yet, I wonder if that does not solve the real issue: the negative interactions likely to occur between neighbors. Even if a new McMansion meets community guidelines, what are the odds an upset neighbor next to the new McMansion is likely to be happy with the new residents?

In other words, property rights do not necessarily lead to good neighbors, particularly if some neighbors are perceived to not follow the local norms. The result can be isolation, lawsuits, public arguments, and violence. Property rights might take ultimate precedent in a court of law but having a pleasant social life may require ceding some control.

Controlling private property, as viewed through Nextdoor

Based on Nextdoor, one writer sums up what bothers Americans about their local surroundings:

Steve Wymer, Nextdoor’s vice president of policy, told me that the same topics arise again and again, modulated by region and neighborhood type. Service requests and recommendations constitute 30 percent of chatter, and discussions of real estate make up another 20 percent. About 10 percent of Nextdoor conversations relate to crime and safety, Wymer said. (Suspicious persons come up a lot, often amounting to sightings of people of color in predominantly white areas. Nextdoor has attempted to discourage posts that use appearance as a proxy for criminality by prompting users to add more detail and blocking some posts that mention race.) Public agencies such as police and emergency-management departments also post updates to their constituencies. Noise complaints are another popular subject, according to Wymer—fireworks seem to raise particular ire—as are classifieds, missing pets, and gardening tips.

Judging by the conversations on Nextdoor, it would seem that Americans are concerned first about the safety and security of their property, family, and pets, and then with their property’s, family’s, and pets’ upkeep and improvement. Though the platform breeds its share of conflict, it is notable—in contrast to other social networks—for the commonality it reveals, even in these times of unprecedented political division. No one, Democrat or Republican, wants a neighborhood strewed with dog poop.

I wonder how much this online behavior is driven by two fundamental factors underlying American neighborhoods:

  1. Residents want to be able to control their own property.
  2. They also want to control some of their immediate surroundings, often in the name of property values or the character of the neighborhood.

These values can often come into conflict when one resident’s actions with their own property clashes with the desires of another property owner. Property rights are very important in the United States but property values often rely on neighbors and the surrounding community.

In the long run, it would be interesting to know whether Nextdoor provides a better platform for resolving neighborhood conflicts compared to face-to-face conversations or mediated conversations through other actors (such as calling the police or contacting local government about a concern). For example, many suburbanites are averse to open conflict and moving the conversation online might diffuse some of the tension. At the same time, an online platform could reinforce issues if things are said there that wouldn’t be said face-to-face or conversations take significantly more time.

 

Invoking (a different kind of) blight to take land for Foxconn

The term “blight” is more likely to conjure up images of slums and urban decay (example of Detroit) than farmland and single-family homes. Yet, the Wisconsin village of Mount Pleasant earlier this week invoked blight to take land for a planned Foxconn facility:

Trustees voted 6-1 to declare as a blighted area some 2,800 acres of open farmland and a few dozen homes, all of it earmarked for Foxconn and the development expected to spring up around the planned electronics factory. Trustee Gary Feest was the lone dissenter, and one of only two board members to speak before the vote…

Still, holdouts remain — people who believe the 140 percent of market value the village has offered is unfair when owners of larger tracts of farmland were paid several times the pre-Foxconn price such property was bringing…

As proponents have in the past, DeGroot emphasized not the eminent-domain power the blighted-area designation gives the village, but rather the financial advantages the measure confers. Communities with plans such as the one Mount Pleasant just approved can finance the redevelopment by issuing bonds exempt from both state and federal taxes, which DeGroot said could save the village millions of dollars…

In taking its action Monday, the village is using a section of state law that broadly defines blighted areas. Besides the commonly understood definitions of blight — dilapidated housing, overcrowding, high crime — the statute says an area can be deemed blighted if it is predominantly open and, for any reason, “substantially impairs or arrests the sound growth of the community.”

Here is the Google Maps satellite image of the Foxconn location (according to news reports). All the farmland is clearly visible.

Google Maps satellite image of Foxconn site

Taking land for a sizable or notable project like this is not always easy. The argument that this is good for the community will not strike all land owners as consonant with their property rights. And there may be some irony later in this story involving property rights. A Democratic gubernatorial candidate will be protesting the use of eminent domain as part of his larger concerns about the project. When Republicans are characterized as supporting both big business and property rights, which one wins? And are Democrats pro-property rights?

While Wisconsin has a slightly different definition of blight, this could be compared to urban renewal plans of the mid-twentieth century that used similar reasoning to mark certain properties as blighted. In both cases, officials and developers have a redevelopment plan for the land that is billed as an improvement for the community. In this case, the trade-off is largely open land for increased local tax revenue and a significant number of jobs. With the urban renewal plans of decades ago, history was not kind to some of the proposals as redevelopment could clear affordable housing units, target minority communities, and accelerate suburbanization (in the cases of highways constructed right through urban neighborhoods). Even without declaring some land as blighted, a project this size could be viewed by some as a significant change to the character of the community. “As many as 13,000 jobs” may sound good but this will affect local traffic, housing, and civic services. I would guess that following up with the community in five, ten, or twenty years could relay both intended and unintended changes if all or most goes as planned with the Foxconn facility.

 

Invasion of McMansions in Kirkwood, Missouri

Teardown McMansions have infiltrated an older neighborhood in a well-off St. Louis suburb:

Residents said not only are smaller historic homes getting wiped out in the process, but the large houses are causing problems for some of their next-door neighbors…

The one next door to her on Cleveland Avenue was erected last year and is nearly twice the size of the original home. It’s a four-bedroom home on the market for more than $800,000.

She said it’s created a real problem for her. The new home’s rain runoff has turned her driveway into a lake…

The city says the builders have followed all the community’s guidelines:

“…The new house on this site sits closer to the neighbor’s driveway, which may explain the confusion. Yes, the new home was built per permit specifications. The City requires the contractor to have the top of the foundation surveyed prior to beginning framing. The floor system is then verified to determine that the finished floor height is as allowed.

A follow-up story from several days later says the new McMansions are affecting more houses:

Since the homes were built around 2015, Reed said her mother’s basement has constantly been flooded and her backyard has turned into a swamp…

The ITeam recently discovered a Kirkwood ordinance that said new developments cannot cause water run-off problems for surrounding properties.

But attorney Paul G. Henry said getting the city to enforce it could be difficult…

We repeatedly asked Kirkwood officials about why they don’t appear to be enforcing their own ordinance but they declined to answer. Instead, they recommended that we file an information request.

Such issues could put a suburb in a sticky situation: should it protect the properties of elderly citizens who have lived in the community for a long time or allow new property owners to construct homes to their liking? Whose property rights prevail? There is probably some middle ground here where the teardowns can be regulated in such a way to provide a little protection to neighbors (whether this involves water issues or residents are concerned about the changing character of their neighborhoods) but these regulations could take some time to discuss and enact.

Five unusual lawsuits between neighbors over smells

Neighbors can fight over many things with numerous examples involving McMansions noted on this blog (see here and here for two cases). How about squabbling over smells? Here are five interesting cases with two examples excerpted below:

In 2001 David and Joan Gallant bought their house outside Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, from Lee and Shirley Murray, whose farm abuts the Gallants’ property on three sides. For years, the two couples appear to have coexisted peacefully, but relations soured for unnamed reasons toward the end of the decade. In 2013 the Murrays erected an unusual barrier on their property line near the Gallants’ house: a massive, reeking pile of cow dung so large it could be seen on Google Earth.

“The manure was fresh, unseasoned, wet, [and] raw,” David Gallant said in his affidavit. In 2015, the Gallants sued the Murrays, and were awarded $11,300 USD in damages…

In Singapore, a newly-arrived Chinese family living in an apartment next to a Singaporean Indian family could not abide their neighbors’ cooking smells—particularly curry dishes. The Indian family agreed to shut their doors and windows when they cooked curry, but they balked when the Chinese family subsequently asked them to stop cooking it altogether.

A government mediator helped them come to an agreement: The Indian family would cook curry only when the Chinese family was out, and the Chinese family would try a curry dish. The case caused an uproar in the Southeast Asian city-state, with many Singaporeans declaring that the agreement treated the Indian family unfairly and that the Chinese family should learn to tolerate Indian Singaporean cooking. A nationwide curry movement erupted, including a “Cook and Share a Pot of Curry” campaign and an annual weeklong series of curry-themed events.

I am now trying to imagine a case that includes the odd combination of a smelly McMansion…

Seriously, though, smells can have a large effect on quality of life. Few people want to live near a landfill or certain industrial properties. I would guess that most suburban communities don’t have a distinctive positive or negative smell outside of their regional distinctions (such as being close to the ocean or the mountains, as two examples). Perhaps this is like having a generic American accent that makes it difficult to know where someone is from – suburbs everywhere have a faint smell of lawns.

Smells can also cross property lines or units within the same property in unique ways. Indeed, you might not even notice anything until the smell is overwhelming. It can be difficult to trace the source. It may not be present at all times (in the cases above, the manure wasn’t going anywhere while a cooking smell can come and go).

Would such lawsuits involve air rights? What expectations should the average resident have that they can control the smells in their space?

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.

Race affects why Americans don’t like people walking on their property

One writer contrasts the approach in Europe and the United States toward walking through the countryside:

In Sweden, they call it “allemansrätt.” In Finland, it’s “jokamiehenoikeus.” In Scotland, it’s “the right to roam.” Germany allows walking through privately owned forests, unused meadows and fallow fields. In 2000, England and Wales passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which gave people access to “mountain, moor, heath or down.”

Nordic and Scottish laws are even more generous. The 2003 Scottish Land Reform Act opened up the whole country for a number of pastimes, including mountain biking, horseback riding, canoeing, swimming, sledding, camping and most any activity that does not involve a motorized vehicle, so long as it’s carried out “responsibly.” In Sweden, landowners may be prohibited from putting up fences for the sole purpose of keeping people out. Walkers in many of these places do not have to pay money, ask for permission or obtain permits.

We’re not nearly as welcoming in America. Travel across rural America and you’ll spot “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” signs posted on trees and fence posts everywhere. And even where there aren’t signs, Americans know they don’t have the implicit permission to visit their town’s neighboring woods, fields and coastlines. Long gone are the days when we could, like Henry David Thoreau on the outskirts of his native Concord, Mass., freely saunter “through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”…

Roaming rights began to erode in the late 19th century, according to Mr. Sawers. In the South, states passed trespassing laws for racial reasons, seeking to keep blacks from hunting and fishing so as to starve them into submission. Elsewhere, wealthy landowners of the Gilded Era became concerned with game populations, and trespassing and hunting laws were passed to restrict immigrants, he said.

It is interesting to note both (1) the historical change in the United States toward property rights and exclusion and (2) European countries may allow walking through property but have restrictions such as committing damage, walking near homes, and hunting. But, perhaps even more noteworthy is the suggestion that race matters here as well: as the United States was moving toward more equality and racial/ethnic diversity, property rights were another means by which to keep groups separate. We know that this would soon matter tremendously in terms of restrictive covenants and segregated neighborhoods but even restricting the simple act of walking was seen as necessary to keep certain boundaries.