The big house on the hill won't be so big in the future.
Alarmed by the "50-foot fortresses" that have appeared on area mountainsides, Salt Lake County commissioners this week voted to downsize residential construction.The new rule limits house heights to 30 feet measured from original grade on slopes of 15 percent or more or within the foothills protection zones. The change doesn't affect flatland construction standards.
Under the old rule, 35-foot houses were permitted on the finished grade - or atop added fill material - which resulted in structures that towered 50 feet high in some cases.
"This is a major step toward restoring some sanity to residential construction on the hillsides," Commissioner Randy Horiuchi said as he and Commissioners Jim Bradley and Brent Overson approved the change.
The vote followed months of study and two public hearings. Hundreds of homeowners, community councils and building-trades representatives participated in the process.
"We think it's a fair and realistic solution to the problem," said Paul Shaw, president of the Home Builders Association of Greater Salt Lake. "It should bring some uniformity back into the hillside situation."
Shaw said a few builders apparently were taking advantage of ambiguities in the old rule, particularly in the measurement of a structure's height from the finished grade rather than the original grade.
"Some of them were changing the grades - putting in ridiculously tall retaining walls - and ending up with houses that were inordinately tall. They were giving all builders a bad name," Shaw said.
But homebuyers deserve some of the blame for demanding "flatland houses on a hillside," Shaw added. To accommodate those wishes, architects and builders found themselves working against, rather than with, the slope.
"With this change, the architects and builders can tell the homebuyers that the house has to fit the hillside," Shaw said. "It will be better for everyone."
Not everyone is totally satisfied with the rule change. More than 400 foothills homeowners petitioned the commission to limit houses to 25 feet, saying they were sick of all the "castles" being built in the area.
In written testimony submitted during the hearings, one group of homeowners said, "Tall, obtrusive homes obscure the beautiful mountain views that all of us from the surrounding area hold so dear."
Edy Wright, chairwoman of the Golden Hills-Top of the World Homeowners Association, said inappropriate construction has damaged the aesthetics and market values of the area. Houses should be built according to the established residential scale, she argued.
Area resident Ellen Mears agreed, saying most of the older homes were constructed with the scale in mind. "They are nestled away so that you can't even see them, but some of these new homes - or castles, I guess you would call them - are appalling."
Mears said 25 feet was "ample" for a bungalow or a one-and-half story house but conceded that the 30-foot limit "is better than nothing." However, she is concerned that the measurement is taken from the middle of the roof instead of the top, possibly allowing builders to circumvent the intent of the restriction.
County planner Bill Marsh said the rule change will make a noticeable difference. For example, he cited one new home in the area that was built at the 35-limit on eight feet of fill.
"So under the new rule, that home would have been 12 feet shorter," he said. "That's at least one story shorter."