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Designers leery of new rules against large homes

Architect says rules may force families out of Salt Lake

Salt Lake City's proposed rules to rein in building of monster homes are too restrictive and may lead to even uglier homes being built in Utah's capital, according to one renovation firm that specializes in remodeling historic homes.

An architect with Renovation Design Group says the new rules are draconian, vague and may force many families out of Salt Lake City. The rules could also drive down property values, make home remodeling much more expensive and frustrate people looking to upgrade their houses, she said.

"It's going to add time and it's going to add cost," said Annie Vernon, co-owner of Renovation Design Group, which also writes a column for the Deseret Morning News' Wasatch Life section. "Philosophically, what they're saying is 'we don't want Salt Lake City to change.' If you don't allow people to change and adapt their homes to meet their lifestyle, they are going to go somewhere else."

While monster home building is a problem, she said, the new rules are an overreaction to three or four cases gone bad.

The firm plans to voice its opposition to the rules at Wednesday's Planning Commission meeting. The commission must sign off on the new rules before forwarding the new zoning ordinance to the City Council for final approval.

Vernon notes the proposed citywide rules are more strict than the recently passed limits on building in the Yalecrest neighborhood on the city's east side, where community members spent four years crafting building restrictions that took effect earlier this year.

Councilman Carlton Christensen, who lives on the west side where monster homes are not an issue, said he's not necessarily opposed to the new rules. However, he favors an alternative method using the volume of the home as it compares to its lot size. Christensen has asked planners to look into the volume method to see if it might offer more flexibility while accomplishing the same goals.

But others, such as Utah Heritage Foundation assistant director Kirk Huffaker, plan to lobby the commission in favor of the proposed rules.

"What the city is saying is that 'if you would like to live in our neighborhoods, which we think are some of the most desirable neighborhoods in the entire state, we'd like you to do some extra work to make sure your product is going to fit in,' " he said.

The monster home issue caught fire in Salt Lake City when a roughly 8,000-square-foot, three-garage home (dubbed by some the "garagemahal") was erected in Yalecrest, an upscale neighborhood of homes generally ranging from 1,500 to 3,000 square feet. The owners took so much flak that they have declined to move in and the house sits vacant.

The owner of another monster home — a 6,000-square-foot structure that replaced a 1,000-square-foot home in the Avenues — has also been ridiculed by his neighbors. The few problem homes have sparked a community outcry as many people worry their quaint homes could soon be dwarfed by behemoths next door.

Monster home critics say the huge, out-of-place homes detract from the area and drive down property values.

Outcry aside, Vernon said the new anti-monster home rules could backfire and have unintended results.

She points to a provision limiting home height to 23 feet at the highest point of the roof — unless the average home height on the same block face is higher. Homes could be built to the average height in the area. Planning department officials acknowledge the proposed 23-foot limit would effectively ban two-story homes in places where most homes are only a single story.

Previously, homes with steeply pitched roofs could be up to 38 feet at the highest point, since the city's limit said homes could be 30 feet at the roof's midpoint (between the roof's apex and the outer wall).

Under the proposed ordinance, homeowners seeking to exceed the height limit would have to go before a design review board, which would decide if the design was compatible with the area.

Vernon said many people won't want to go through the time, expense and uncertainty of a design review board.

She said the exception review criteria are so vague architects can't know how to design something that would gain the board's favor.

"What they're telling people is that they've got to pay me several thousand dollars and then go out and get signatures from all their neighbors and then go to this board, who is then going to decide whether they like it based on some intangible I don't know. And if they decide they don't like it (the builders) have to come and start over with me on a new design, which will cost several thousand dollars more," Vernon said.

A likely outcome could be homeowners either moving to areas where two-story homes are welcome or the city getting two-story homes with flat roofs that comply with the height limit, she said.

"They're going to build something that's a square box and has a flat roof and doesn't tie in at all with the homes that people love in these neighborhoods," Vernon said. "They've taken it to the point that nobody can change things, and if they really want to, they're going to have to do it poorly."

Vernon agrees something needs to be done to curb monster home building, but she contends that most remodeling in the city is neighbor-friendly and looks good.

Others in the business say new rules are needed but agree they shouldn't be overly restrictive. In general, Salt Lake City's old system worked fairly well, some say.

"They haven't allowed us builders to build everything we've wanted to. You don't see anything that's built right out to the curb. You don't see anything that's five stories high. And I tell you if they could they would," said Robert Myers, co-owner of Icon Remodeling.

Joe Lorenzo, owner of J A L Architecture, expresses more hope that the city will come up with clear rules detailing what people can do and what they can't.

"There should be some guidelines out there so people know what they can and can't do," he said. "The wheels are turning and hopefully we'll get some decent laws in place that we can abide by, reasonable laws."