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New MoCo Planner: Think Smaller -- in Housing

The scene at the Greater Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce's annual real estate breakfast might be a portent of things to come for the building industry.

On the one hand, real estate agent Jane Fairweather gave a gloom-and-doom report on the county's efforts to make some modest restrictions to house sizes, as a way to diminish complaints about mansionization. Fairweather was referring to a bill by council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), as well as a report by a task force Berliner convened.

She also spoke unhappily about new county taxes on real estate transactions, one of several ways the council and County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) attempted to fill the budget shortfall.

A few minutes later, up to the podium strolled Rollin Stanley, the county's new planning director, who has ruffled some feathers by telling developers their plans are "horrible" and by criticizing the county, which he said seems at times more concerned about due process than about getting well-designed communities.

Stanley said he wasn't too worried about big houses having to be a bit smaller. The market, he suggested, isn't going to want those big houses anyway, because they will be too expensive to heat and cool, and will be too big for the empty nesters and baby boomers who will be living in them.

"Bigger houses, many people think they are the next slums. They are too big, and people are having trouble selling them," he said.

What the future market really wants, he told the audience of business leaders, is smaller, more energy-efficient housing near public transit.

He said he hopes that Montgomery will be a leader. "Phoenix, it's horrible. Shanghai, that's Phoenix on quaaludes," he said, referring to unregulated sprawl. "This is unsustainable. We can't keep going on like this."

"The mind-set in this country is wrong," said Stanley, a native of Canada who was the planning chief in St. Louis before arriving in Montgomery a few months ago.

After he spoke, emcee Dee Metz, a longtime fixture on the real estate scene, said: "It's wonderful to have someone who tells us how he really feels."

By Anne Bartlett  |  June 12, 2008; 9:53 AM ET
Categories:  Miranda Spivack  
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Comments

Stanley's steaming makes sense. The cost of energy is changing everything. But Fairweather's complaints about taxes are justified too. We just got a 14% property tax increase the bills for which will be mailed next month or so. Last night at the council forum at Pyle I asked the council if they would stick to the county projections of a 3.7% increase in property tax revenues next year and a 1.7% increase the year after that. Mike Knapp replied that over recent history Montgomery County has been getting an annual 3.5% increase in property tax bills.
Of course this year we got 4 x 3.5% = 14% property tax increase, which is four years worth of increases in one year!

Look for another giant property tax increase next year too.

And help is on the way! Our November ballot question will require every council member to think long and hard about exceeding the charter property tax limit--a limit enacted by the voters to prevent unfair taxation.

Posted by: Robin Ficker Broker Robin Realty | June 12, 2008 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Mansionization is a word used by people who really mean "I don't want my neighbor having a bigger house than me". Other things being equal most people I know would prefer to have a large house than a small one for themselves, even if the heating bills were a little bit higher.

Posted by: McMansions MMM MMM MMM | June 12, 2008 12:00 PM | Report abuse

"What the future market really wants, he told the audience of business leaders, is smaller, more energy-efficient housing near public transit."

If that's what the market really wants, then that's what will get built. Did Congress pass a law outlawing SUVs? No, the car manufacturers responded to the market and are building fewer of them.

As for 'mansionization', how is it a problem? If you can afford the taxes and the bills, go for it. If you can't or won't, then buy a smaller house. Command economies don't work and never will.

Posted by: Baltimoron | June 12, 2008 12:46 PM | Report abuse

Amen!!! A smallish house near public transportation is exactly what we want! We have it in College Park, but want to move to MoCo for the better schools.

And Baltimoron (apt), clearly Mr. Stanley is anticipating a market shift, not trying to impose a command economy.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 12, 2008 1:16 PM | Report abuse

"As for 'mansionization', how is it a problem? If you can afford the taxes and the bills, go for it. If you can't or won't, then buy a smaller house. Command economies don't work and never will."

Unfortunately, our recent experience with a housing bubble proves this comment wrong. Builders just as much as buyers got caught up in the frenzy of building too many luxury condos and McMansions that now sit empty or in some cases half-completed, with no buyers, at least not at prices that would allow recouping costs. All the builders were trying to rush in and make their cash before the next guy, before the bubble burst. This gold rush mentality does not create a functional, well-structured development pattern. Coordinated city planning is needed for that.

(On a side note - believe it or not, there are those of us who would prefer to live in a smaller house with *quality construction* and good design than a graceless, flimsy McMansion for the same price. Any builders listening?)

Posted by: Erica | June 17, 2008 2:00 PM | Report abuse

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