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McMansions Turn 'McApartments,' Stirring Ire

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The new house on Allison Street in North Brentwood is two stories higher than the older homes that surround it. It doesn't have a porch, shutters or any of the other distinguishing features found on the century-old bungalows on the block.

"It's out of character for the town," said Mayor Petrella A. Robinson, who lives across the street, with a dog on her front porch.

"It's humongous," another neighbor said of the house, as yet unoccupied. "It just doesn't fit in."

The complaints sound the same as those in Chevy Chase and Arlington County: Builders are constructing large houses on small lots, knocking down trees, obstructing sunlight and destroying the character of the town.

But in North Brentwood and other small municipalities in northern Prince George's County, mansionization comes with a twist: Some of the new homes, neighbors and town leaders say, are being used as boardinghouses for several families or unrelated people. Some are college students from the University of Maryland. Others appear to be immigrants.

"Our concern with these McMansions is they are not single-family homes," LaVerne Williams of Lewisdale told a group of county planners and elected officials in Riverdale. "You are turning our communities into rooming communities."

Williams, 81, is leading a campaign to protect her neighborhood and beyond. She walked into the recent meeting with a cane in one hand and a fistful of pictures of oversize houses in the other.

"I'm a law-abiding citizen," she said. "You have to do something about this."

Prince George's planners have launched a study of mansionization, spurred not just by neighborhood complaints but also by pressure from state lawmakers.

Last year, state delegates proposed legislation that would have given 11 Prince George's towns and small cities control over zoning, a power now reserved for the county -- except in the city of Laurel.

The bill died in committee, but not for lack of local support. Del. Barbara A. Frush, a Beltsville Democrat, said she understands the plight of neighbors, feeling helpless while their community is altered.

"They make these things into not a McMansion but a McApartment building," Frush said.

Del. Tawanna P. Gaines, a Democrat from Berwyn Heights, said the House delegation has given the county an ultimatum: Come up with a county approach, or the state will deal with the matter.

The Prince George's Planning Board expects to have draft legislation to the County Council for review by next month. The county could consider further height restrictions: Houses currently can be 40 feet high. It also plans to study overlay districts, which are used to limit development in certain areas. Annapolis has used overlay zones to restrict development.

"We've had a number of communities that have expressed concern," said Samuel Parker Jr., chairman of the Planning Board. "And we know the issue in Prince George's is a little different" from those of neighboring counties.

County law declares that no more than five people unrelated by blood or marriage can live in a single-family house. But enforcement has been lax, said Bob Schnabel of College Park.

"There is no penalty," he said. "Properties in my neighborhood are rented to more than five people, and it's far time that the county deal with this."

Council member Thomas E. Dernoga (D-Laurel) said code enforcement staffing has been a problem for the county. He also said the county is considering an ordinance, like one recently adopted by Laurel, that addresses crowded houses.

In 2005, Manassas caused an uproar when it restricted single-family homes to immediate relatives, even if the number of occupants was below the legal limit. The law was meant to address problems associated with crowded housing and illegal immigration. But officials repealed the law after civil rights leaders complained.

Kristie M. Mills, city administrator for Laurel, said her city's new code was not based on ethnicity but fire safety. Under the ordinance, each house is limited to a certain number of occupants, based on the number and square footage of bedrooms.

"We had inspectors who were finding houses were being redeveloped, they were adding rooms without permits," Mills said. "One instance, the inspector found sprinklers covered up. It's boiled down to a life-saving issue."

For Williams, it is about what is happening outside the houses in her community.

In a walk through Langley Park, she pointed to several houses that tower over the bungalows. One had several cars parked around it. Another, under construction, had several entrances, suggesting that more than one family could eventually live there.

At another, Mirna Segovia answered the door and explained that she and her husband expanded their Keokee Street home two years ago simply to make room for their five children.

"It was too small," she said.

Staff writer Virgil Dickson contributed to this report.

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