The worrying in College Heights began in 2003 when the sign went up announcing that an 8,300-square-foot home was going to be built and then sold at auction.
The plan to build a house on an empty lot in the modest 1950s Fredericksburg neighborhood and sell it at a public sale was unusual enough, but the size of the home was a concern for residents. Set on a quarter-acre, the house would take up nearly the entire lot and, with four two-story columns, seemed out of place in a neighborhood where a Sears Roebuck house and newer small ranch homes blend in.
Then there was the price tag. At the auction in June 2004, someone offered $1.65 million for the house, but it was turned down by the builder, Southern Comfort Homes. Today, the house is still for sale, with a price tag of $2.7 million.
The house, at William Street and College Avenue, represents what College Heights residents have begun referring to as "The Attack of the Monster Houses." Several other large houses have been built on small plots in College Heights, and city planning officials say there are proposals to tear down several houses in the community and rebuild from scratch -- one of the few alternatives available to home buyers in a city where little open land exists and half of the houses for sale are listed at more than $500,000. The average price of houses sold last year was $229,485.
The College Heights neighborhood association also has focused on two other projects in the community: new houses that take up almost the entire parcel of what had been empty lots.
"We're worried about the building of towering structures next to small structures," said Carol Kramer, who lives behind one of the large new houses.
Residents who turned out for a neighborhood meeting last month said they were especially concerned about older houses being torn down. The giant houses damage not only the neighborhood's character but also its sense of community, they said.
"We look around and say, 'Well, if someone tore down the house next to me and built something that was three floors instead of one story, do I want that next to me?' What could happen? It's scary," Kramer said. She has lived in College Heights since 1991.
"Just because someone looks at a house and says, 'small house,' doesn't mean it doesn't have some value," she said. "We think it offers diversity and something that's unique. It seems to me that the bigger the house, the less willing people are to be outside. When you build a house that takes up the whole lot, you don't have a yard or a garden, you don't spend much time outside, around your neighbors."
With the College Heights situation, Fredericksburg joins several Washington area suburbs where older housing is being torn down and rebuilt in the latest style: big -- or McMansions, as the large houses have been dubbed. Arlington County will address the issue this fall when its Planning Commission votes on a zoning change that would limit the square-footage that a house and driveway could occupy on a lot.
The issue is exacerbated in Arlington because the county, like other close-in Washington suburbs, is mostly built out. In addition, said Tony Burnette, the county's deputy zoning administrator, Arlington's proximity to the District increases its appeal. He said some residents are concerned that the proposal would limit property owners' rights.
Fairfax and Montgomery counties also are considering limits to deal with the issue.
"It's market driven: People want more home and less lot to maintain," said Bill Shoup, zoning administrator in Fairfax County, where the issue has been under study since 2000.
College Heights residents have described themselves as "asleep" when Southern Comfort acquired zoning variances from the city to build the Fredericksburg house, but they now have organized. They want the city to set new requirements to restrict out-of-scale houses -- requiring, for instance, that houses sit on more land and farther back from the street.
They also want officials to set standards governing the demolition of houses.
"There are some homes that should be torn down, but there should be some justification before tearing it down and just putting in a McMansion," said Clyde Matthews, president of the College Heights Civic Association. The neighborhood is adjacent to the University of Mary Washington.
Fredericksburg is preparing to revamp its comprehensive plan, and officials say the requirements College Heights wants probably will be spread throughout the city.
"They want a little more [than the current requirements], and I think they are right," said Erik Nelson, the city's senior planner. "The rules are pretty basic and worked for many, many years, but with the new pressures we're experiencing, there is a little more we need to maintain the integrity of the neighborhoods."
Land values in Fredericksburg, a city of 21,000, have skyrocketed in recent years. With its train station, sidewalk cafes and art galleries, the city has become an attractive draw for those seeking a more urban feel. But unlike the counties that surround it, the city has little land left for new construction.
Paul Sukalo, president of Spotsylvania-based Southern Comfort Homes, predicted that the market for such homes will grow. Professionals moving into the area want to be downtown "and don't want to spend all their time renovating one of these older homes," he said. "This is happening all over the country, and it's happening for a reason: People want the convenience."
College Heights residents and Southern Comfort first butted heads when the company rejected the initial $1.65 million offer for the house at William Street and College Avenue. A Massachusetts woman then proposed to the city that she turn the home into a Christian retreat, where women could learn homemaking and relationship skills. Residents protested that proposal, saying it would bring a business into a residential neighborhood, and the buyer withdrew her application.
"What we're seeing is that the market is such that it's worth someone's while to buy a place and tear it down and build something bigger," said Nelson, the city planner. "It's happening in a lot of places around the country."