Susann Haskins sees it nearly every day. The Montgomery County real estate agent takes a client into a three-story townhouse with eight-foot ceilings. The client abruptly walks out.
Then Haskins, president of the Greater Capital Area Association of Realtors, shows a newer townhouse with nine-foot ceilings and a fourth-story loft. Within minutes, the client is ready to make an offer.
"This is driving the market today," Haskins said. "Consumers want higher ceilings on both levels, and by higher ceilings we are talking no less than nine feet. . . . It clearly has value to the consumer, so clearly it has value to the builder."
To get those ceilings, builders and developers are pushing the limits when it comes to the height of new homes.
That is one of the issues at the heart of the dispute over the new Clarksburg Town Center, the subject of a Montgomery County Planning Board hearing today. Officials say the project's developer, Newland Communities, agreed to build hundreds of townhouses no higher than 35 feet. Instead, officials say, 433 of those units could top 50 feet.
Newland, a San Diego company, says county officials knew all along how tall townhouses would be in the northern Montgomery residential development.
"We carefully followed the guidance and direction that was provided to us," said Charles Maier, a Newland spokesman.
Furthermore, Maier said, Newland's final product satisfied a consumer appetite for higher ceilings, a more open floor plan and other features that are possible only in four-story townhouses.
"Four stories allows the builder to build to the market," Maier said. "That is what the market demands, and that is what the builders are providing. . . . If the government prescribes a specific numerical height, you are going to have an absolute sea of sameness in every new community."
Four stories also mean more profit. Exactly how much is difficult to answer.
In Clarksburg, many newly built homes sell for $250 to $300 a square foot, said Lenn Harvey, a Bethesda broker. David DeSantis, sales manager at PN Hoffman Construction and Development of the District, said a larger townhouse with higher ceilings may yield as much as $100 a square foot more.
Sal Alfano, editorial director of Remodeling magazine, said he suspects that a lot of that extra money goes directly into the pockets of the builder and developer.
"Chances are the developer would be able to recover in the sales price a lot more than they spent to raise that ceiling," Alfano said.
Across Montgomery, the question of how high is too high is pitting neighbor against neighbor.
Some residents in older communities closer to the Capital Beltway say their neighborhood's character is being ruined by homeowners who tear down houses and replace them with conspicuously larger structures. The County Council is considering a proposal by council member Howard A. Denis (R-Potomac-Bethesda) to restrict all single-family homes in residential districts in southern Montgomery to 30 feet, down from the current 35-foot limit.
In Clarksburg Town Center, no such uniform zoning requirements exist. It is in a special zoning district created to give developers more flexibility. Still, developers are expected to follow the site plans approved by the Planning Board.
Planning officials say Newland agreed to construct townhouses and single-family homes no higher than 35 feet. Newland officials say they thought they had to agree to limit townhouse heights to four stories.
County planning officials, who realized the height only after a group of Clarksburg residents brought it to their attention, are recommending that the builders and developer be fined a total of $1.2 million. It would be one of the largest fines levied against an errant developer in Montgomery, but some Clarksburg residents say it is too low.
"The sanctions proposed by the planning staff can only be described as laughable," said Norman Knopf, an attorney for the Clarksburg Town Center Advisory Committee. "These units are selling for many thousands of dollars more than they otherwise would because they are higher and bigger in terms of a footprint."
On the other side, Maier argues that any substantial fine could severely curtail developers' interest in Montgomery, thus crippling joint efforts between the county and builders to supply more affordable housing.
"All the builders and developers are watching this thing," he said.