Making McMansion Owners Pay

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Blaine Harrington III / Corbis

A home in Littleton, Colorado.

As bloated homes and McMansions continue to sprout up across the country, Boulder, Colorado, may have come up with a lucrative approach to contain what detractors call the plague of Garage Mahals and Big-Hair Houses. At a July 10 meeting, where more than 70 citizens spoke, Boulder county commissioners preliminarily approved a system of development rights transfers that would extract mega-bucks from builders of mega-homes.

It is a process that has been used for historic, agricultural and natural resource preservation in other parts of the country. Michelle Krezek, Boulder County land use manager, said the commissioners "want to allow property owners who either have or want smaller-scale homes to be able to sell a portion of their 'unused' square footage." Homeowners willing to sign away their option to someday add additions to their houses would receive a one-time payment as well as lower yearly tax assessments on their homes. The forfeited enlargement rights would then be available for purchase through a specially established market. Residents planning to build or expand homes larger than the recommended thresholds — 7,000 square feet on the plains, 5,000 square feet in the mountains — would be required to purchase additional development rights at prices determined by the market, which might be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per property. Krezek adds: "This will allow for an ongoing diversity of housing stock and allow for people of varied means to own homes in Boulder County."

The average U.S. home size was 2,434 square feet in 2005, up from 983 square feet in 1950, according to the National Association of Home Builders. But new houses in Boulder County are now averaging 6,500 sq. ft. (one 5,000-sq. ft. residence on a Niwot hillside, with four bedrooms, four baths and views of snow-capped peaks, goes for $875,000). And there is no shortage of people wanting more and more living space. At the Boulder meeting, mega-mansion aspirant Harry Ross said he'd spent all his savings on 70 acres and wants a 6,000-square-foot home secluded in the middle of his property, invisible to neighbors. Fran August says she grew up in a three-room house and had to sleep in the living room. Now that she can afford it, she says, "I want a bigger home! I am so sick and tired of being cramped." Local real estate broker Rick Corbin says the Boulder County Commissioners have gotten "way too carried away" in infringing upon the ability of property owners to build homes of varying sizes. He says he "adamantly opposes" the county's regulatory efforts.

But critical, aesthetic and media sentiment around the country has been against the giant homes. Last month, Minneapolis approved caps on home sizes (limiting them to 50% of the lot), while in Austin, a local paper offers an "Is My House Too Fat?" feature where online voters jeer at architectural monstrosities. Lane Kendig, who writes about the McMansion phenomenon for the American Planning Association, says that an underlying motive for building big houses can be a mentality that says "I've got lots of money and I want to show it off," leading to "Chateaus du Screw You," as the Austin Chronicle has dubbed these properties with paved parking lots and Versailles-like ornamentation.

There may never be a shortage of rich people willing to buy the right to build what they want. "Like the Hummer," says Kendig, "a lot of Americans feel the bigger the car, the bigger the house, the better it is. And if you're just interested in how much money you want to spend, that's easy. You go to the marble counter tops store." He adds: "We are a 'bigger is better' people." So, Boulder may have come up with an elegant and egalitarian solution. While big houses can go up, the people who own small houses will get richer too.