Who needs an architect when you have he local city council to do all he work for you for free? Legislation sent to Maryland’s governor will “finally” give southern Maryland communities the authority to regulate the size, bulk, height, and width of single family homes in order to slow the growth of so-called McMansions. “>The Maryland legislature is moving forward with a new law that allows cities to regulate the size, bulk, height, and width of single-family homes. “If we wanted to preserve the particular character of our own little community, this gives us a little more opportunity to do that,” said Carolyn Shawaker, mayor of Garrett Park. The McMansion issue, however, is really about controlling other people’s lifestyle and preferences through the political process. Across the region, residents in older neighborhoods near the Capital Beltway have been wrestling over how to keep traditional houses from being torn down and replaced with larger structures that some say are out of character with surrounding structures. The debate often pits neighbor against neighbor, with one person’s dream house being another’s eyesore. County governments in Maryland and Virginia are responding with new standards. Last fall, the Montgomery County Council and the Arlington County Board adopted new limits on house heights. Alexandria and Fairfax County are also studying the issue. Some municipal officials and residents in Montgomery wanted even greater restrictions. Last summer, the Chevy Chase Town Council unanimously passed a six-month building moratorium while it considered how to slow the pace at which houses were being torn down and replaced with much larger ones. The town’s options were limited because only the council and planning board could establish maximum building heights. The micromanagement of lifestyles and living standards is an inevitable outcome of shifting decisions into a political process where majority rules rather than individual preferences. When majority rules, that typically means that status quo (community character) is preserved at the expense of adaptation, flexibility, and organic community development. What would Jane Jacobs think?
Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.