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Cities seeing showdowns over teardowns

Many U.S. towns are pushing for laws to stem a surge in home teardowns. CNBC’s Diana Olick reports on the building backlash.
/ Source: CNBC

In the exclusive town of Chevy Chase in Maryland, dumpsters dominate the landscape. But local homeowner Greg Bitz won’t be hearing the dulcet tones of construction near his own house any time soon.

Earlier this week, Chevy Chase slapped a six-month moratorium on new home construction, house additions and teardowns.

Bitz says that, although he now has to wait longer for his own, he has lived through a number of local home constructions in recent years: “Every house that confronts my property essentially has been renovated during the past four years that I’ve lived here,” he said.

Chevy Chase’s new ruling is part of a building backlash that has been brewing nationwide over the last several years, as America’s desire for bigger and better homes has fueled an explosion in teardowns.

The average size of a home in the United States has increased by 138 percent to 2,330 square feet since 1950, and more than one third of the new houses built today are 2,400 square feet in size, or bigger, according to the National Association of Homebuilders, a trade group.

Chevy Chase Mayor William Hudnut says the idea isn’t to stop home construction in the area altogether: “What we are saying is let’s take a time out for six months; take a look at where we’re going as a town,” he said.

The trend toward bigger homes is clearly a direct result of the real-estate boom says Terry Szold, a professor of land use planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies.

“Suddenly, in what might have seemed a very modest neighborhood in a suburban area, you’re seeing in some cases monster homes,” said Szold, adding that these neighborhoods are in areas where people feel some value in living; where they are close to their jobs and local amenities.

It’s the same story in other American towns and cities. In suburban Chicago, for example, a six-month moratorium on teardowns just expired. Salt Lake City is now considering new zoning laws, and there are similar changes afoot in Charlotte, N.C., Westchester County, N.Y., Barrington, R.I., and all over California.

It’s the bigger houses on pricey little lots that are causing the biggest backlashes, but with real estate now a bigger slice of America’s investment portfolio, the community controversy cuts both ways.

“The notion of home evokes very strong emotions,” notes professor Szold. “Remember: My home is my castle, so the very impulse to regulate that very personal and protected domain is met with resistance in most places.”

At Greg Bitz’s home in Chevy Chase, approximately 18,000 square feet of backyard that he and his neighbor, who is also his partner, planned on selling to a builder lies untouched. It’s a windfall that’s close to $1 million, he says — a windfall that, due to the moratorium, for now at least is gone with the wind.