Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Arguments shift in house size rift

Owners of smaller homes in Bethesda fear new legislation could make their property less valuable to potential buyers

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
David Belkin, a homeowner on Chestnut Street in East Bethesda, stands on the front lawn of his house, which is shadowed by a neighbor’s home. Belkin said proposed County Council legislation limiting the size of a home on a lot may have a negative effect on smaller homes’ property values.
Residents in one Bethesda neighborhood are crying foul over proposed legislation that would limit the size of new houses, not because they want larger homes, but because the rules could affect future owners of their property.

Some residents of the East Bethesda neighborhood say the measure, proposed by Roger Berliner (D-Dist.1) of Potomac, will decrease the value of their property and make the lots less desirable for potential buyers.

‘‘Assuming everything equal, I won’t be able to sell my lot for the same price that the person next door sold their lot for,” said David Belkin, who lives on Chestnut Street. ‘‘I’m guessing I may get 10 percent less than they did.”

A June 17 public hearing on the legislation brought more than 60 concerned citizens to the County Council.

The zoning text amendment Berliner introduced in April limits a house’s size and height based on its lot size instead of the zone in which it is built. The ordinance also uses increments of square footage to set guidelines for how much of a lot can be covered by a house, reduces the height limit in most single-family residential lots of 20,000 or more square feet and changes the way house setback limits are established.

The amendment is slated to go before the council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee July 21.

The East Bethesda neighborhood, bounded by Wisconsin and Connecticut avenues, Jones Bridge Road and East-West Highway, is one of the main areas in the county affected by the proposed legislation. Berliner’s measure, the result of a year-long task force, would reduce the size of a prospective house based on the size of the lot the house would sit on.

Belkin’s 2,100-square-foot rambler sits between two houses Berliner’s measure is trying to eliminate in the future: a 4,500-square-foot house and a 6,200-square-foot one.

For Belkin, who is retired, the matter isn’t the size of the homes; it’s the value he could get for the land.

‘‘I’m happy living here, and I’m not going anywhere,” said Belkin, whose land is assessed at $738,000. ‘‘It’s just that this doesn’t make sense, especially now in a down market.”

At the public hearing last week, Berliner defended the legislation.

‘‘All I can say is we took up seriously the impact on property values and the research seems to conclude that this has no negative impact,” he said.

The study used by the county, Berliner said, compared areas with zoning restrictions limiting infill house size and those without it.

Residents, though, aren’t buying it.

Jim Burke, his wife and his daughter live in a 1,200-square-foot colonial built in 1948. The house, on Glenbrook Parkway, is one of the smallest in the neighborhood and is assessed at about $625,000. Burke has written to Berliner outlining his concerns with the proposed zoning changes, and also attended the hearing.

‘‘The economics of this were not well thought out,” he said in an interview. ‘‘ property can’t be developed at the same degree as others in the neighborhood, so it will be worth less.”

Burke said, if passed, the legislation would create two classes of property owners: one who was able to build their houses to the maximum allowed, and those who fell under the new legislation.

Berliner said the restrictions are not as constraining as some homeowners are presenting them.

‘‘On 6,000-square-foot lots we’ll allow 4,500-square-foot houses; this is not a small house,” he said. ‘‘It is true we’ll have trade-offs, but we will not have small homes.”

Area housing experts tend to agree with Berliner. Kenneth Wenhold, the Washington director of Metrostudy, a Houston-based market data company, said the values of property in the infill areas should stay steady.

‘‘People like these infill areas because they’re close to services and retail, so the property will always be in demand,” he said. ‘‘Is it going to push some people out to the suburbs because they can’t build a 7,000-square-foot home? Maybe, but probably not many.”