The Town of Chevy Chase, a wealthy enclave of 1,032 homes in Montgomery County, is preparing to adopt a six-month building moratorium that proponents say will give the town time to craft a response to "mansionization."
The incorporated town's five-member council unanimously agreed last week that a freeze on demolitions, new construction and substantial renovations was necessary. Yesterday, town lawyers released a draft ordinance that might be voted on as early as Aug. 10. Opponents are pondering lawsuits and said the town is infringing on property rights.
The town joins other jurisdictions in the Washington region that are considering efforts to address widespread complaints about oversized homes. Montgomery is debating a measure to change the way residential building heights are calculated and to reduce maximum height from 35 to 30 feet in the southern part of the county. Arlington County is looking at legislation that would lessen the extent to which certain residential lots can be covered by buildings, driveways and other structures.
The fight over "McMansions" is a classic struggle between the values of the community and the rights of individual property owners. One side says it is striking a blow for "scale" and "neighborhood character" as the other raises freedom's banner.
Gregory Bitz, a town resident, financial planner and majority owner of what is considered the last open lot in the town, said this week that he opposes the moratorium and "any action that takes away from freedom in this country." He said his plan to sell and develop the $1 million lot is jeopardized by the prospective moratorium.
In urban areas and such built-up suburbs as Chevy Chase, clashes over mansionization are hard to escape and hard to regulate. They are most likely to emerge in expensive communities -- the median household income in the town was $160,000 in 2000 -- where property owners have the means to renovate, add on or rebuild and where developers see great potential profits in doing so.
"There is no opportunity to increase the housing stock in the town. The only opportunity is to upgrade and replace the housing stock," said Joseph Rubin, a town resident and real estate agent who opposes the demolition ban.
But whether a new or renovated house is in keeping with those in the neighborhood is largely a matter of perspective.
"One person's mansionization is another person's revitalization, which is what makes this issue so hard to resolve," said Montgomery County Planning Board Chairman Derick P. Berlage. He said the board has declined to act on several proposals regarding mansionization in recent years.
Montgomery County Council member Howard A. Denis (R-Bethesda-Potomac), sponsor of the bill that would tighten height limits, said mansionization is a policy issue of the I-know-it-when-I-see-it variety. When he tours neighborhoods, he said, "what the neighbors say is, 'Look!' All of a sudden, they find they are dwarfed by the house next to them."
Barry Hager, a resident who helped organize a petition drive in May in support of a moratorium, said residents "were saying, 'Whoa, every time we get up, another house has been torn down.' " In two weekends of canvassing, Hager said, activists garnered signatures in support of a moratorium from 410 of the households in the town.
Town Manager Todd Hoffman said the town recorded 55 demolitions in the eight years beginning in mid-1997.
The Chevy Chase draft ordinance says the town's "Special Character" is defined by architectural variety, open space, lots of trees and "sense of scale."
Mayor William H. Hudnut, a former mayor of Indianapolis and an urban planning expert who has lived in the town since 1996, said officials would use the moratorium to consider increasing the amount of space owners must leave between their homes and side and rear property lines. He said officials also would discuss raising fines for taking down trees, and whether the town can impose land-use rules more restrictive than the county's zoning. The draft says the town also will look at regulating the effect of construction on storm-water drainage.
Rubin said activists and town leaders are trying to "legislate taste" and impinging on the owners' rights. Bitz said, "The town is quickly and improperly trying to pass laws that violate property owners' rights without giving all property owners the opportunity to comment and be heard." He said absentee landlords in particular have not been able to weigh in on what the town has proposed.
Although he declined to say exactly who might challenge the town in court, Bitz added, "There are lawsuits that are going to be filed and stuff that's going to happen before this meeting on the 10th."
Lewie Bloom, a resident and builder, said in a statement that the town ignored a proposal from several builders for a voluntary six-week pause in demolition in favor of the "extreme measure" of a moratorium, which he said is already having unintended consequences.
"An elderly gentleman was selling his house to move into a nursing home -- only to have the buyer back out because of the uncertainty," Bloom said. "This will not be an isolated case."