Cheering Board's Stand

Against 'McMansions'

As a 13-year resident of Arlington and a registered architect designing residential additions here, I am very proud of my County Board for voting to limit the size of houses on the basis of lot size.

Timothy M. Wise, president of the Arlington County Taxpayers Association, claimed that the issue "morphed into a campaign of envy against McMansions and has now become just a massive effort of bureaucratic control of the American dream: individuals and what they can do to their homes" ["Board Votes to Rein In House Sizes," Metro, Nov. 16].

Mr. Wise's inflammatory use of the word "envy" suggests that the debate was between haves and have-nots, those who can afford to tear down older homes and build McMansions and those who can't. In fact, the real debate is about light, air and the quality of our open space, some of the issues that gave rise to zoning laws in the first place.

Like it or not, Arlingtonians must accept their small lot size when they purchase a home here. Perhaps because the lots are small, Arlingtonians place a high value on their open space. That is why "pop-top" additions, building on top of an existing footprint, are such a popular choice.

In 10 years of transforming not-so-big houses into bigger houses, I have never had a client insensitive to the impact of their house addition on their yard or their neighbors. As a trained and licensed design professional, I do my best to manipulate rooflines, cornices, porches and exterior trim to keep additions compatible with the scale of the neighborhood. Attics are transformed into bedrooms and basements become TV rooms or nanny suites. We squeeze habitable space out of every square foot of these houses.

By contrast, many of the McMansions being built take up a lot of their neighbors' light and air with uninhabitable space: two-car garages and useless attics made of prefabricated roof trusses. A popular "new home" model in my neighborhood has fake windows attached to the roofs to fool you into thinking there is usable space in there and to distract you from the fact that these roofs are absolutely huge. This roof truss issue literally hit home for me one spring morning when I noticed a change in the time that the sunlight came into my living room -- because of a new roof four lots away!

The day after The Post reported on the board's vote to limit house sizes, it ran a small article in the Alexandria-Arlington Extra about Arlington being "the first county in Virginia to be certified by the National Wildlife Federation as a Community Wildlife Habitat."

Hundreds of passionate residents participated to bring this about by turning their small lots into habitats hospitable to nature. When Mr. Wise invokes the American dream, he would do well to realize that the flip side to "individuals and what they can do to their homes" is individuals and what they can do to their yards. I did not participate in this program myself. I'm just thankful that my sunny tomato patch is protected from somebody else's overzealous building.

The County Board withstood a lot of pressure to vote as it did, and it made the choice that is best for Arlington. Northern Virginia has plenty of other options for people who value indoor space over outdoor space.

Helen Methvin Payne