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Anti-McMansion ordinance aims to slow supersized houses

Legislation may offer win-win solution for developers and homeowners

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Legislative lovefests are rare in Atlanta City Hall, where even minor controversies can provide opportunities for political grandstanding and dissent.

But City Council members, fingers crossed hopefully, say a newly proposed ordinance offers an elusive win-win solution to the hotly contested issue of infill McMansions – gigantic houses that look as if they were mistakenly dropped into a row of modest bungalows, often literally overshadowing their neighbors.

"I have not got one problem with this legislation," says Councilwoman Carla Smith, who sounds slightly surprised by the words coming out of her mouth. She quickly adds, however, that while the proposal is the best available answer to the problem of wrongheaded home building, it's not likely to make everybody happy.

Smith is due her ambivalence. She was chairwoman of the council's zoning committee a year and a half ago, when the city last grappled with the explosive topic of infill construction. At that time, Mayor Shirley Franklin ordered a surprise 30-day moratorium on new home-building permits in five intown neighborhoods – Ansley Park, Buckhead, Lake Claire, Morningside and Virginia-Highland – where infill abuses were deemed to be most commonplace.

A sharp outcry from developers helped defeat a three-month extension of the mayor's building ban and the anti-McMansion legislation that subsequently passed through Smith's committee was decisively shot down when it reached a full council vote.

"That proposal was so stringent it would've put a halt to the kind of growth we want in Atlanta," Smith says. "It would've kept people from tearing down a little-bitty crack house and replacing it with something bigger."

But while the legislation died, the problem only got worse, according to longtime Buckhead activist Sally Silver. "As we get fewer parcels of land available intown, you get new houses that tower above existing homes," says Silver, who has seen developers tear down large homes around her neighborhood – only to replace them with still larger homes.

"Who would have thought gentrification would come to Buckhead?" she says.

For the past year, Silver has served on a volunteer task force of homeowners, real-estate agents, builders and architects who worked with city planners to craft the new proposal, which supporters tout as the last word on the subject of infill development.

Smith describes the legislation as "more comprehensive but less restrictive" than the previous attempt.

For starters, the new proposal determines the maximum size of a house in a given zoning district by factoring in the total lot size, the house height and the amount of habitable floor space.

And it closes a number of loopholes. Currently, houses can't be taller than 35 feet – measured from ground floor to roof peak – but developers often get around that rule by building "daylight basements" that are only partly underground but don't count toward the total allowed height. Even sneakier are unfinished basements that don't count toward total floor space, but which are later completed and add several hundred square feet to already sizable houses. Or a builder will tear down a house and regrade the lot – creating a tall embankment of dirt held in place by a high retaining wall – and then stick a multistory house on top of it. When the next-door neighbor looks out his window, all he sees is a wall of concrete blocks.

The new proposal restricts the height of retaining walls, sets limits on lot coverage, prohibits drastic regrading, and clarifies how basements and attics are considered when calculating the house's overall height and floor space, Smith says.

What it doesn't do, however, is take into account the size of the house next door, dictate architectural design, or add new requirements for front-yard setback and property-line buffers – provisions that have been included in ordinances in some other cities and in covenants in private subdivisions. The new rules would not apply to historic districts, such as Grant Park or the West End, which typically have a more restrictive approval process for new construction and renovations.

Although the legislation has support from both homeowners and home builders, Silver predicts that some neighborhood residents will be shocked the next time a three-story villa goes up on a street full of ranch homes.

"Even with this ordinance, people can still build a house that's much larger than the one next door, but not as extreme as they can now," she says. "There's a fine line when you're dealing with property rights and a person has a right to build on his lot if he meets the zoning."

For Councilwoman Mary Norwood, infill housing has been a pet issue for nearly 20 years, back to her early days as a Buckhead homeowner advocate. The primary backer of last year's proposal, she's enthusiastic about the new legislation, but agrees people will inevitably be disappointed if they believe it means an end to all supersized home construction in the city.

"People will still be able to add on and build new houses that are appropriate for the market," she says. "If it errs on one side, I'd say it's not restrictive enough, but it strikes a good balance. The fact that it won't please everyone probably means it does a good job."

It may be surprising, therefore, that the most vocal criticism has come from Westside neighborhoods Home Park and Loring Heights, where some residents complain that the new guidelines are too restrictive. Michael Rothman, chairman of the local Neighborhood Planning Unit-E, explains that many homeowners won't be allowed to build houses as large as they would like. His NPU was one of three – out of 26 – that voted to oppose the ordinance.

"The homes in these areas have really small lots, so the restrictions on buildable floor space will lower the economic value of the properties," he says.

Rothman argues that instead of creating citywide limits on housing size, Atlanta should adopt a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach that takes into account each area's character.

"I think it's too complicated an issue to have a single umbrella ordinance," he says.

The proposed ordinance is expected to pass through City Council's zoning committee this week, and come up for approval by the full council at its Sept. 20 meeting.

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