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In Defense of ‘Mansionization’
Anthony Flint / The Atlantic / February 1, 2013
In a town just north of Boston recently, the planning office was abuzz. Developers had the audacity to buy a property on a quiet street near a desirable elementary school, and were giving the house a major overhaul – tripling its size, and hoping to sell it for $1 million. They needed only a building permit; the rest of the project required no approvals for zoning or anything else.
This wasn’t the dirtiest word in established metro-area communities – the teardown – but it was essentially the same thing. The term in vogue now is “mansionization.” The planners were worried about the historical value of existing housing stock, new homes being “out of character” and out of scale with the surrounding neighborhoods, and the lack of entry-level or affordable housing.
Can we step in with some regulations, they wondered? They had heard about other upscale towns that had taken steps to limit teardowns and big-home construction. In Rockport, for example, a special permit review process kicks in if any teardown replacement home is larger than 6,000 square feet. Wellesley has a similar detailed review process – covering everything from required setbacks to the number of trees that may or may not be cut down. It was immediately challenged, but upheld by the Massachusetts Attorney General in 2008.
Beyond such zoning controls, there were surely other language that could limit out-of-scale house-flipping development. And as ever, communities can also try to wield the club of historic preservation, in pursuit of maintaining “character.”
But for the town fearing the onslaught of mansionization, I had some different advice. Don’t stand in the way. Be flattered that the market is recognizing your neighborhoods and prime locations. And most important of all, be proud that what’s happening is a form of smart growth.