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Neighbors on Steroids

"McMansion" Fever Spreads Throughout Westchester

by Julie Gilligan

(Republished on December 5, 2002 from the Westchester WAG of September 2001 ) Some people call them McMansions or MiniMansions. Others call them Houses on Steroids. But they all call them Big. Roughly 4,000-7,000 square feet, with three stories and three car garages (the two-car garage is decidedly passé), they're popping up all over Westchester.

With price tags ranging from $1.5 to $10.5 million, these new homes are changing the landscape of even the most affluent communities by towering above their neighbors. They are also stretching so close to the edges of property lines, that residents can practically see the people next door undressing (which in some cases may not be so bad!). If you're wondering why the little ranch house next door seemed to have come down in the middle of the night, wonder no more. Meet your new neighbors.

With loud rumblings of protest from the natives, open land areas in Westchester are being grabbed by builders with the attitude, "the bigger the better," as long as there are buyers to put cash on the line. Developer Michael E. Fareri, was dubbed by The New York Times (March 2000) as one of the first to capitalize on the "flush 1990's Wall Street money" and Armonk, his prime territory, was described as a "builder's paradise." Long time residents began to worry about their peaceful community, additionally concerned that improving roads and building stores in the buffer zone of Kensico Dam would affect the quality of water.

Fareri defends himself by saying, "Yes-I have built McMansions in Armonk, but away from the town, where lot sizes average two acres." Over the past 15 years he has also constructed smaller homes closer to the town. "I try to build the size home a customer wants. McMansion owners expect a lot: a home entertainment center or media room wired to access future digital and fiber optic capacity, "his and her" dressing rooms, and computer ready home offices. Three, even four car garages, are requested to house two SUV's, another car "to go out visiting," and one for a Nanny or housekeeper's car."

Fareri continues, "Families in Armonk are growing. There are now three or four children-no longer one or two. This means extra bedrooms, in addition to those for the Nanny and housekeeper." Armonk will soon pass a new zoning law to address the ratio between recommended square feet of living space in proportion to the size of the building lot.

And they are not alone. Actions against the McMansion phenomenon have begun in a number of desirable communities including, in lower Westchester, Scarsdale, Rye, Larchmont, and Harrison. Until the current craze for huge mansion homes such suburban areas satisfied wealthy or upper middle class families, content to have comfortable luxury homes, fine school systems, access to swimming, sailing, and preserved nature trails. But residents are up in arms about the current "build out or up" philosophy, creating an unsightly variety of McMansions covering every inch of property. Further displeasure stems from the fact that the newcomers have no regard for the accepted style of architecture each community prides itself on.

Lucille Held, a 44-year resident of Harrison, feels that "the sudden surge of McMansions overpowers smaller homes" and spoils the natural look of attractive landscaped houses nestled in the wooded area where she resides. Held does not condemn larger homes but suggests that they can be designed to fit info the landscape. "Polly Park Road is newly developed in the Town of Harrison - with lots of land, acres and trees. Homes there are beautiful," she says.

But, these days Harrison authorities are forced to investigate proposed building blueprints very carefully. According to Held, "in the recent past, new owners just built on to a smaller house or builders bought property and built a McMansion, based on existing zoning ordinances." Recognizing that the zoning code needs tightening, she is adamant about spreading the word.

Orienta resident and architect, Doris Erdman, has been instrumental in Mamaroneck Village being one of the first to adopt FAR the (floor area ratio) concept for zoning. Larchmont, Scarsdale and the Town of Mamaroneck are in the process of implementing FAR as well. Erdman emphasizes, "Citizens are aware. They want the building of huge mansions controlled. Overspending makes these houses out of place. For example, there's a home on Grecian Point where the individual took full advantage of what was the current code and made ground level higher, outside the "footprint" (the designated building limit on the lot). Erdman notes "While the FAR concept originally was created for commercial use, adapting it for residential purposes will assure a specific amount of frontage set back. Expansion of the sides and back of a structure, as well as, the height upward are limited."

Possessing both a personal and professional familiarity with the spread of McMansions, Erdman is perplexed by the trend. "I just cannot comprehend how young people, smart enough to earn a fortune, do not look into details of home buying. For example the ambiance of the community-what makes it attractive and a sound investment-and what is the longevity of that quality of life for the future. They don't educate themselves.”

Newly elected [at the time the article was first published] volunteer trustee of Larchmont Village, Anne McAndrews, is also working hard to study the FAR concept, as one possibility to meet the needs of her village. As an attorney, McAndrews is analyzing the diverse structure of zoning, which exists today. The small Village of Larchmont has at least five different districts, each with variations in the size of lots and accompanying zoning or building codes. She says, "Creating a law with just a different mathematical equation does not solve the problem. It might eliminate the flourishes, which make a house interesting. For example, front porches, which are so much a part of family life in Larchmont. Whenever you pass a law about zoning you must be careful not to be out of compliance with other existing ordinances."

Larchmont has had its share of McMansion type homes built over smaller structures on property facing Manor Park. They are attractive and seem to melt right in with neighboring homes. As McAndrew points out "Larchmont has many large, gracious homes on small lots-residents are used to seeing this, especially in the Larchmont Manor area closer to the Sound." But, these homes are not the problem.

Anne Moffett, who grew up in Larchmont, purchased a smaller home on Hazel Lane five years ago. "I fell in love with the southern exposure which had sliding glass doors and large windows to let in bright sunshine." Just 15 feet from her home, a reconstructed McMansion style home was built on Pryor Lane. Moffett agonizes over the fact that "Unlike the former house, there is now a basement on ground level and two additional floors. It will block the sun from my home!"

Trustees in Scarsdale Village arranged for a series of public meetings, which began in July, to present residents with a proposal under consideration to change the village building code. According to the Village Planner, Liz Marrinan, the Scarsdale Planning Board feels it is unique. The plan introduces a floor area ratio cap, which limits the area in new homes or additions to an existing dwelling at a percentage of the total lot area. The proposal allows homeowners to build beyond the cap if they use architectural designs that reduce the "bulky" appearance of the house. This includes building garages and additions to the rear of the house. The proposed law gives architects encouragement and incentive to create designs that are sensitive to concerns of nearby neighbors.

Pat Warnken, a realtor at Prudential Centennial in Scarsdale, trained in design, says, "McMansions do not necessarily have to be a negative influence as long as the builder uses materials, style and size that harmonize with the rest of the community." For example, there is an estate area in Scarsdale with large older homes on beautifully landscaped lots exceeding one acre. And while a rebuilt 7000-squar~foot home here might be viewed as a McMansion, constructed in stone, it blends in with other stone houses. Some neighbors actually feel that, in a case such as this, a McMansion can improve the value of their nearby home.

Scarsdale Deputy Mayor Beverly Sved, along with other village trustees, attended the first meeting on July 10th "to listen to the residents." Reactions to the proposal ran the full gamut of pro and con. According to Marrinan, property rights people" wanted to expand the "building out" area, which they felt prevented the plans they had to build on existing lots. Those in favor of a new law felt the current proposal was a beginning step, but it was flawed. Other public hearings are scheduled through the early Fall when community consensus will clear the path for design of a new building ordinance. Residents agree, "It is a lengthy, important process to determine the future character of Scarsdale."

Rye also has a wide variety of property lot sizes and homes. Traditionally, homes in the past were not built out to the edge of the lot. George Latimer, Chairman of the Westchester County Board of Legislators, and a home owner in Rye, says "Westchester County has a lot of market pressure. But, building land is not there in some communities. This means new options for both long time residents and newcomers." He continues, "It is a very difficult balancing act to maintain a community's character, while upholding property rights. Everyone needs to understand each other's point of view, before going to war."

Jeff Marston and his wife moved to the Greenhaven section of Rye from Larchmont three years ago and purchased a house on a little larger piece of land. A McMansion extension of an existing house nearby is in process. Marston feels, "it is not the style of the house that is objectionable, but, rather, that it is right in your face."

Rye Mayor Steve Otis, who grew up in Harrison and attended Rye Country Day School, certainly under- stands the pleasant suburban appeal of the City of Rye. He says, "House size to lot size is the issue here. At the same time one needs to balance needs of families for space. Set back variances, which are intrusive to neighbors, are a very complicated change. The community must move cautiously. We must focus on the excesses in height or set backs where it impacts on neighbors."

John Feingold, a nine-year resident of Pound Ridge, who recently relocated to Larchmont, works with Allee, King, Rosen & Fleming, a national planning firm dedicating their services to villages, towns and cities and covering issues such as the environment, wildlife, traffic and the total impact on local finance, property values, school taxes and police security. Feingold recalls residents of Pound Ridge being concerned about what they dubbed "New Canaanism," enormous homes being constructed and stretched to the very end of building lots.

Feingold points out that while building laws for lots and houses in upper Westchester, where there is much more land, may be on a grander scale, a similar situation to lower Westchester exists. New residents and builders take their lot survey (which happens to be quite large) and are free, within the local zoning code, to erect houses within a designated building envelope. Normally, before the era of McMansions, this included building up-out- or-in back of-the structure. The result was old homes were spread out to fill existing lots. New homes were designed to fill up lots, thereby being out of scale, and eroding neighborhood appearance and character".

Kevin Brenner of Brenner Builders & Associates in Pound Ridge offered another view, saying, "It is not about the size or cost of a new home. It's about good taste. Houses can be of similar size, but they must fit in to the neighborhood and not be offensive."

Joy Simpkins, the Pound Ridge Town Supervisor and a long time resident, says, "Over a year ago Pound Ridge voted to change the zoning code to provide a different ratio of house size to lot size." Simpkins senses some of the new ostentatious structures are a game of show-off. "They need to be built on an equitable piece of property." She also questions the wisdom of newcomers who invest in McMansions during this period of an up and down economy. "However" she concludes, "Everyone has a dream house!"

But, one man's dream house, can be another man's nightmare. Therefore, Westchester residents are moving towards legislation regarding the size and expansion of neighboring homes. Until then, McMansions will be sprouting up faster then Jack's beanstalk.

Publishers Note: With the current local interest in McMansions, FAR, and home expansion, we thought our readers would appreciate a geographic perspective from this still timely article. We owe thanks to the Westchester WAG and Larchmont author Julie Gilligan for allowing this article to be republished in the Larchmont Gazette. Illustrations courtesy of Jim Fleming: see McMansions: Size Isn't Always That Important for his take on the issue.

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