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A Large-Scale Disagreement

As Massive Houses Prompt Protests, Arlington Proposes Limits

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 31, 2005; Page A01

In Arlington, plans for a palatial, 12,500-square-foot house on Pershing Drive call for a basement ballroom with bar, an indoor swimming pool, a hot tub, five bedrooms, eight bathrooms, a library and a prayer room. The house would be 4 1/2 times the size of the average home on the block.

"Its scale is absurd," said neighbor Alan Tober, who, along with others, worries that the house will be used for commercial purposes -- namely weddings.


A big new house towers over its more established neighbors on Culpeper Street in Arlington, whose County Board is considering imposing restrictions. (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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But property owner Yogi Dumera said he has no such plans. He is only taking advantage of his large lot, he said.

"I'm within my rights," Dumera, a restaurateur, said of his dream home. "I don't see why people can say anything. . . . Life goes on."

Giant houses such as Dumera's are controversial virtually every time they spring up in established neighborhoods, and for years area governments have made faltering attempts to do something about them. Some jurisdictions set strict height limits, and the District has limited tree cutting in at least one area in an attempt to rein in gigantic residences.

By proposing zoning changes, Arlington County officials are going further than any area government in imposing restrictions. In the coming weeks, they will debate rules that would reduce the square footage that a house and driveway can cover on a lot. If approved, the rules would be the region's first significant limits on so-called McMansions.

The practice of tearing down smaller homes in older neighborhoods to make way for million-dollar construction has grown more popular in recent years as buildable land has disappeared inside the Capital Beltway and property values have soared. The trend mirrors what is happening in other metropolitan areas with older housing stock, such as Boston and San Francisco. Buyers have been eager to replace aging houses with newer, bigger models equipped with modern luxuries such as cathedral ceilings, great rooms and expansive bathrooms. In the past 50 years, the average size of a new home has more than doubled while lot sizes have steadily shrunk, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

Driving Arlington's efforts to curb the influx of giant houses are residents worried about construction that they find at odds with the scale and character of their neighborhoods, said County Board Chairman Jay Fisette (D).

"We know we can't legislate good taste or good architecture," Fisette said. "The modifications we've been talking about will keep the worst projects from being viable."

On the other side are developers and an opposing group of residents ready to mount a robust campaign against the regulations, saying they will hurt the average homeowner who just wants to add a deck or kitchen. Arlingtonians, whose property values have increased 70 percent in the past three years, should be able to exercise their current rights, opponents argue.

Furthermore, some critics of the proposal say they suspect that much of the discontent springs from a culture clash between longtime residents of Arlington and new, richer arrivals, many of them wealthy immigrants.

"They flat out don't like these rich people moving in and building big houses. It's a bunch of old liberals, and they've just got to give up," said Terry Showman, a developer who builds homes in the county. That idea is called "silly" by Fisette.

John McIlwain, senior fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute, said growing pains in the close-in neighborhoods are a form of upscale gentrification.

"In this case you have middle-class neighborhoods going upper class, but you have the same tensions: 'I don't have an objection to these people, but I don't like these big fancy houses,' " McIlwain said. The irony is that "people say the neighborhood's going to hell if a house is rented and not kept up, and they say the same thing when someone builds a big house."


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