IN THE RUSH to offer extra closet space, higher ceilings and ever more square footage, the region's booming real estate market has created a distorted incentive: It is often more profitable to raze an existing home and squeeze in its place a boxy behemoth that has the effect of dwarfing surrounding houses and taking mature trees and open space in the process. The unique character of entire neighborhoods may be sacrificed.
Chevy Chase has responded to this concern with a moratorium on substantial building in the town that could go into effect as early as this week. To hear developers tell it, the moratorium is a draconian measure that will drive away buyers and drag down land values. In reality, most renovations will be unaffected by the moratorium, partial demolitions will still be allowed, and any previously approved work can go forward. The Chevy Chase ordinance calls for just a six-month hiatus in issuing permits for new houses and major demolitions, to give town officials time to explore ways to curb the construction of supersized homes.
The town already has the power to increase setbacks (the minimum distance between the house and the property line) and officials intend to seek additional regulatory powers. Will the town's solutions trample on property rights? Unlikely. Landowners have long been subject to limitations on what they can build: In Montgomery County, the maximum height for many houses is 35 feet; in Arlington, a home can cover no more than 56 percent of the lot on which it is built. Jurisdictions grappling with so-called McMansionization should be able to come to grips with the issue through a sensible mix of height, lot coverage and setback standards, as well as financial penalties sufficient to deter those who would risk breaking the rules to boost profits.
Unfortunately, height and lot coverage restrictions are set at the county level, so any change (such as the proposal in Montgomery County to drop height limits to 30 feet) might help one neighborhood while hurting another. A case can be made for extending those powers where possible to smaller-scale elected bodies, such as the Chevy Chase Town Council. Residents could opt to keep building to county maximums, but they should have the flexibility to vote on requiring larger setbacks or shorter home heights. Granting communities that basic authority would probably involve careful navigation of a maze of state and county regulations, but it just might be worth the effort.