Cities around the metro area are deciding to limit house sizes in an effort to maintain the character of older neighborhoods, where there's mounting pressure to raze and rebuild. That's the easy part.
Once cities determine such limits are needed -- some, like Greenwood, are still wrestling with that question -- they must decide how to fashion the restrictions. How does one measure a McMansion? Is it defined by its height? How much lot it eats up? Whether its rooflines are straight or pitched? How close it comes to the curb? As a Wayzata staff report put it, "There are no time-tested evaluation methods for McMansion regulatory controls, so communities cannot reference ideal solutions."
Inside: A look at four cities' efforts to define and prevent the proliferation of oversized homes. AA7
The history: Residents of the city's 13th Ward expressed concern about the number of "tear-downs" in their neighborhood. The city took up the issue in August 2006.
The limit: In July 2007, the City Council passed an ordinance limiting a new house's floor-area to half the size of the lot.
Is it working? Too soon to tell. Although Ward 13 Council Member Betsy Hodges has sensed from public response that the ordinance is working, "I think we'll really see the true impact this summer" -- during the first full building season since the council passed the ordinance.
The history: In January 2007, the city approved a policy that allows it to take into account a house's size when deciding whether to approve a variance.
The limit: It's based on a ratio: the size of the house relative to its lot size. If a house requires a variance from the zoning code, that ratio can be no larger than the largest house within 400 feet of it in any direction or within 1,000 feet on the same street.
Is it working? The city believes so. Because of the policy, several property owners have revised their plans and reduced square footage, said City Planner Julie Wischnack. And "applicants or home builders are calling in advance of their design process to research the policy."
The history: The city began discussing an anti-McMansion ordinance two years ago. In January, the City Council considered a draft ordinance but sent it back to the planning commission for revision.
The limit: While Minnetonka limits a house's floor area based on its lot size, the Greenwood ordinance would have used the lot size to limit a house's total volume. Calculating that volume would have involved a complicated formula, detailed in a 27-page document that took into account a range of features of a house. For example, garage size would have counted in the total volume, but patios wouldn't.
Will it work? It could, city officials said -- if it ever gets approved. Because it's based on volume, the formula accounts for McMansion-like qualities simpler calculations don't. But the complexity has scared some city officials. Despite much discussion, the ordinance "never really gets anywhere," said Roberta Whipple, city administrator.
The history: In August 2007, the City Council adopted a moratorium on new houses taller than 30 feet in the city's three oldest neighborhoods -- a total of 332 lots -- so it could study how it might prevent McMansions. Last week, the council extended that moratorium so city employees could further study the issue and craft a zoning amendment.
The limits: The draft amendment focuses on one of the three neighborhoods: the "Old Wayzata Plat." It proposes a mix of rules, including banning duplexes, increasing front yard setbacks and limiting houses' heights. The city will soon tweak those for the other two neighborhoods.
Will it work? Maybe. The zoning addresses many elements specific to the neighborhood, and city staff members believe it will prevent most McMansions. But assistant planner Bryan Gadow acknowledges that beyond zoning, "if someone builds a home that just doesn't look nice, it's not going to fit the neighborhood," he said. "Another home might be well-designed, use great materials, have nice roof-pitching, but might not match the zoning. It all comes down to perception versus reality."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168