Ban the Monster Houses

Essay by Greg Moore

Mountain Life – January 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

NEAR SUN VALLEY, Idaho, a Seattle couple is building a house that measures 20,800 square feet. That’s the current local record holder, but it’s not unique. Here and in other mountain resort towns, people who have made their money elsewhere are moving in and building bigger and bigger houses.

Anyone who has lived in these towns has seen the impact the huge houses are having on the character of the community. What used to be unobtrusive towns with their attendant resorts are turning into giant country clubs.

Worse, the owners of these monstrosities have a disproportionate impact on the environment. Though they come to enjoy the beauty of their new surroundings, they trash the environment someplace else by building homes that require an enormous amount of lumber. Huge homes also need more than their share of natural gas, electricity and water.

Nobody needs 20,800 square feet to live well. It is wanton, obscene waste. And it’s time for local municipalities to place caps on the permitted size of new dwellings. Say, 5,000 square feet.

I know it sounds un-American. Some will contend that such a cap would be an unreasonable, and perhaps illegal, intrusion on peoples’ private property rights. But the right to build a monument to one’s ego should not be allowed to trample over the well-being of the community. Many jurisdictions 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.

Limiting the size of residential homes is not an untested idea.

Telluride, Colo., 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 ten 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, a cap of 5,000 square feet, not counting garage and basement space, has recently been placed on new houses in the city’s Rural Remote and Conservation zones. Other 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.

SOME OPPONENTS will claim that the construction and maintenance of big houses brings jobs and wealth to their communities. They’re right. But I doubt that building really huge houses brings much more money to those areas than would construction of only reasonably large houses. Only a few architects, builders and landscapers would suffer from a limitation, and not by much. For most local residents, the tradeoff would be worth it.

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. A recent New York Times Magazine story profiled an architect whose clients ask for homes in the 20,000- to 60,000-square-foot range. Others who think in a similar fashion are no doubt eyeing the half-million-dollar lots in the mountain West.

Convincing local governments to take a stand against monster homes is an uphill battle. When I asked one planning and zoning commissioner for the county surrounding Sun Valley if he would support a size limitation, 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 an immoral trend. Why should we stand by idly and watch our valleys become something most of us don’t want?

Ironically, one 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 contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo (http://www.hcn.org). He is an editor for the Idaho Mountain Express in Sun Valley, Idaho.