Knockdowns are a normal occurrence in The Principality. A knockdown is the purchase of older modest houses in good locations for the express purpose of demolishing the existing structure(s) and building a newer, larger one. This per se is not a bad thing: real estate operates in a mostly-free market (free as in supply/demand, definitely not free as in no money involved!), the sellers make a profit, the neighborhood is enhanced, the buyers live in the house they want, and, yes, the local government gets to collect a much larger amount of taxes with minimum burden on the public schools (since there’s a higher probability the children that live in million-dollar houses will go to private school). There is almost no vacant land available, so people who want new houses in The Principality get a knockdown. I know of at least one instance where the owners tore down their old house and built a new one. I like my modest-looking house, which is why I live in it, and find most large houses unattractive but someone must like them.
Yesterday’s headline, Rules endorsed to limit McMansions, points at The Principality’s government rearing its ugly head to impede this process. As it turns out, “the so-called McMansions, which typically involve tearing down an existing older house and building out the lot with a much larger residence that is out of scale with its surroundings” are not all that common, since the planning director himself states, “generally no one builds to the maximum house size permitted under (current) zoning (rules)”. Thankfully, the new zoning would not restrict property owners from demolishing and rebuilding on their own land.
The Principality has many many residential zoning and construction rules. Several years ago I was having windows added to an existing screen porch and had to get permission from the historic commission, even when I live in a totally-not-historic track house. There is a double-standard, though. New public buildings have been granted variance after variance to exceed current zoning regulations. The University builds whatever it best pleases, including an upcoming Gehry creation. But I digress.
One of the planning board members pointed out that “by limiting the ability of homeowners to sell for knockdown and rebuild, the proposed zoning changes could lessen property values”. But, another planning member justified the proposed restrictions by stating that they are “a matter of social policy. We are restricting the size of houses to preserve social and economic diversity . . . It’s very clear we’ve got a real gap in providing moderate-priced housing”. In a related article in today’s newspaper The Planning Board Recommends Restrictions Aimed to Prevent Visually Intrusive Buildings, the former mayor of the Borough — now a planning board member — claimed, “This is how you manage the trend of building too large — anticipate larger housing and prevent it”, which translated into plain English means, interfere further with the private housing market.
No public hearing date has been set for the proposed ordinance.
Social policy might propel the planning board to attach more restrictions, but the planning board is blind to the following,
1. By their own admission, “diversity may be attained at the expense of the property owner”; their approach makes the transaction and building costs rise while “preventing” the building of houses the buyers might want.
2. There is no thought given to the astronomical spending that causes ever-rising taxes, which makes The Principality’s middle-income residents unable to afford keeping the houses they already own.
3. Historically, goverment intervention in housing has been inherently inflationary in the long term.
If The Principality were genuinely interested in maintaining diversity they’d be wanting to help the middle classes stay, and to allow the middle classes make a profit on their properties when it’s time to move on.