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For the week of Sept. 8, 1999 through Sept. 14, 1999

Let’s end the obscenity—no more huge houses

Commentary by GREG MOORE

In 1987 I wrote an article for this paper titled "The Big House Phenomenon." It examined the then-recent trend of people who made their money elsewhere migrating to the Wood River Valley and building huge houses--defined in the article as those in the 5,000- to 13,000-square-foot range. Since then, the trend has only escalated. The unnecessarily large have been overshadowed by the grotesquely humongous. A Seattle couple is building a house in Gimlet that measures 20,800 square feet—the current record holder, according to the Blaine County Building Department.

Anyone who has lived here for more than a few years has no doubt seen the impact these oversized dwellings have had on the character of the community. What used to be an unobtrusive town with its attendant resort is turning into a giant country club.

Worse, the owners of these monstrosities have a disproportionate impact on the environment. I’m sure those people come here to enjoy central Idaho’s beautiful natural surroundings. Meanwhile, they trash the natural surroundings someplace else by having four times the number of trees felled that they really need. While it was being framed, the Gimlet house looked like a forest of two by sixes (used even for the interior walls, which could have been two by fours). That and other huge homes will need far more than their share of natural gas, electricity and water.

Nobody needs 20,800 square feet to live, even luxuriously. It is wanton, obscene waste, and it affects all of us.

It’s time to say "No more." It’s time for local municipalities to put a cap on the permitted size of new dwellings. Say, 7,000 square feet. Nobody needs more than that to live well.

No doubt, there will be objections. There will be those who contend that such a cap would be an unreasonable, and perhaps illegal, intrusion on people’s private property rights. To them, I would say that the right to build a monument to one’s ego should not be allowed to trample over the well-being of the community. I would point out that we already limit the floor area of commercial buildings and the heights of residential buildings. Why not add a limit on the floor area of residential buildings? The purpose and manner of enforcement would be the same. No additional constitutional "takings" issues would be involved.

The Idaho Local Land Use Planning Act, which grants planning authority to municipalities, provides at least one legal rationale to set a size cap. The act states that one of its purposes is "To ensure that the important environmental features of the state and localities are protected and enhanced." A limit on the size of houses would protect both the rural character of this locality and the state’s forests. ( I like the "enhanced" part. Could we tear down some of the really big and ugly houses? Probably not.)

Some opponents will claim that the construction and maintenance of big houses brings jobs and wealth to the community. They’re right. But I doubt that building really huge houses brings much more money to the area than if we built only reasonably large houses. Only a few architects, builders and landscapers would suffer from a limitation, and not by much. For most people in the community, I think the tradeoff would be worth it. It’s nice to be able to earn more money, but I hope most of us haven’t forgotten why we came here in the first place.

There will be others who say it’s too late—the huge houses have already spread across the landscape. They’re right, too—we should have put a stop to this cancer 10 years ago. But the phenomenon is likely to accelerate over the next decade just as it did during the past one. The Aug. 15 New York Times Magazine contains a story about an architect whose clients ask for homes in the 20,000- to 60,000-square-foot range. Those people will be here soon.

For models where house-size limitations already exist, we can look to communities in Colorado—always ahead of us in land-use planning. The town of Telluride has set a maximum of 4,000 square feet on new houses. The town’s planning director, Steve Ferris, told me there have been no constitutional challenges to the limitation during the 10 years or so of its existence.

"It’s based on a community character issue," Ferris said. "There’s a side benefit of conserving resources."

Ferris said there are still "trophy houses" being built outside of town, but that Telluride is negotiating with San Miguel county to set a limit there, too, perhaps of 5,000 square feet.

In Aspen, residential zones have caps on house size relative to lot size. In the city’s Moderate Density Residential Zone, for example, if you own a one-acre lot, you can build up to 6,600 square feet, not counting garage and basement. As lot size increases, the rate of increase in allowed additional floor space decreases. Even so, in theory, if you own a big enough lot, you can build a gigantic house. However, the city’s zoning officer, Sarah Oates, told me that since lot sizes are all limited, the practical effect is a cap on house size of about 22,000 square feet—in my opinion, way too big. But on the vast majority of lots, that size can’t even be approached. In fact, Oates referred to huge houses in Aspen as those in the 10,000-square-foot range. (I resisted the temptation to tell her that around here, we call that "affordable housing.")

Blaine County should look at both the Telluride and Aspen models. The simplest solution would be an absolute cap, a la Telluride. But if we wanted to adopt something like the Aspen ordinances, we could make even more stringent reductions on the amount of additional floor space allowed per increase in lot size. In fact, we could use a mathematical formula that allows a lot owner to approach, but never reach, a certain house size.

I ran the idea of house size limitations past one Blaine County Planning and Zoning commissioner. He didn’t sound entirely opposed, but said he felt uncomfortable acting as the "morality police." I understand that feeling, but I think it’s time to take a bolder approach against what I’m sure many people here consider an immoral trend. Why should we stand by idly and watch this valley become something most of us don’t want?

Ironically, one local group that would probably applaud a size limitation is the people who already own huge houses. An end to the construction of even bigger houses would leave them at the top of the heap in the competition to build the most pretentious dwelling. They could declare themselves the winners, and the rest of us could enjoy a more pleasant environment.

Greg Moore is a copy editor and writer for the Idaho Mountain Express.


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