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Issues in Land Use Law & Zoning

McMansions & the Geometry of Zoning

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Many historic communities find themselves besieged by intense development that threatens their character. As land values have risen and taste for ever-larger houses has grown, it is not uncommon for someone to purchase an old house, tear it down, and replace it with a “McMansion” that is out of scale with its surrounding neighborhood.

Rather than deterring this trend, classical zoning often exacerbates it. Zoning regulations seek to limit size through setback and height restrictions, but this typically fails to prevent McMansions, which maximize volume by expanding to setback lines and the maximum height limitations. Similarly, typical floor area ratio (FAR) regulations — based on measurements of actual floor size — can allow for house sizes much larger than one would expect since the FAR calculations do not take into account the impact of volume-expanding features such as cathedral ceilings and open stairways.

Some communities have sought to fight off McMansions through tightening their regulations. For example, Naperville, Illinois, links allowable side yard setbacks to lot width, requiring a certain percentage of open space and minimum yard size to save side yard views. Naperville also regulates front yard setbacks, not through a fixed measure, but in relation to the line generally established on a street by existing houses.

Other places have experimented in advanced geometry. Aspen, Colorado, created a “cubic content ratio,” which it defines as “a measure of land use intensity, expressing the mathematical relationship between the cubic content of a building and the unit of land. It is arrived at by dividing gross cubic content, as calculated by multiplying building height times exterior building width times exterior building depth of all structures, by the gross area of the lot.”

There are also communities that rely on special permit criteria in seeking to control McMansions. Lincoln, Massachusetts, for example, requires special permit review for any residence in excess of 4,000 square feet in floor area. However, zoning regulations which govern the appearance — as opposed to the geometry — of residential properties, have not been commonplace. In large part, the reluctance of municipalities to create design review criteria derives from court opinions opposing aesthetic zoning.

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