Wednesday, December 09, 2009

How Big is (Too) Big?

There’s a new house rising on a hill, a short walk from Chez Sven through the woods. The lot itself cost over $100,000. I went to check it out yesterday afternoon and decided I would not want to live right above Route 6 myself, but the owners certainly will have an amazing view. How big will this house be? How big is too big? Here’s a question that interests me, one posed by the Wellfleet Community Forum on Monday night. After the Blaschs tore down the boxcar house in the National Seashore and built an enormous structure that caused the town to adopt zoning by-law amendments for the Seashore district, Wellfleet still struggles with issues raised by this experience. Does new construction need to “fit in”? Will trophy houses destroy traditional Cape Cod? What gives a town its character? Does Wellfleet risk the same fate as Nantucket, once a quiet whaling town? Read some of the impassioned views expressed by Wellfleetians at the meeting:

Hugh: A big house “tends to be where you can’t miss it.” The owners install “$7000 bathroom faucets” and “a monitoring system to Los Angeles or New York.” (Hugh seems to have new affluent neighbors and makes it quite clear he does not approve of “what comes with size.”)

Kathleen: “Where’s the economic reality? Nantucket is bust.” She doubts Wellfleet will be faced with another trophy home on the same scale as the Blasch house, very visible from the Herring River dike bridge.

Tom: “People are still building these things. I don’t think they are going to stop.”

Brent: “If the Mayo Beach cottages were (to be) replaced with a trophy home, Wellfleet would be changed forever.”

Ned: “Be careful not to legislate on style.”

Ben, who grew up here, points out that the debate is not new. There are already many different types of houses in town. “We should not exclude people based on their having money.”

John brings up the issue of affordable housing, dear to his heart.

Gooz Draz, one of the Planning Board members present, thanks the speakers and reminds everyone that build-able land in our town is limited: ”Character is not attributable to style …. Wellfleet is highly valued because it’s desirable and will remain so, no matter what size house we agree to.”

Throughout the country, houses have gotten bigger over the past fifty years. They are 50% bigger than in 1970. We will not discuss energy costs for such houses, although appropriate at a time when climate change is being debated in Copenhagen. The question is when is a house out of scale with its surroundings?

Note these goals for Wellfleet, expressed in a 2004 Survey and the 2008 Local Comprehensive Plan: 1.) to maintain the rural character of the community, 2.) to support marine and fishing interests, and 3.) to limit house sizes.

Motivated by the building that is rising beside Edward Hopper’s simple clapboard house, inhabitants of Truro are considering a new zoning bylaw that sets specific limits on the size of new homes, as well as renovations to existing homes. The issue was discussed Monday in the Cape Cod Times. The Kline house will be 8,333 square feet and soon block the view that inspired Hopper when he looked north, across the landscape, from his giant window.

Sven and I opted to renovate our Cape Codder using the same footprint, but not all houses in Wellfleet have charm and deserve preservation. What do you think of the current trend to tear down old cottages and build bigger? Should Wellfleet design a bylaw similar to the one being proposed in Truro? Do you think small towns should legislate size?