Maryland Towns Outlaw McMansions

Several towns in Maryland D.C. suburbs have won authority from the state legislature to limit the size of homes, pending the signature of Governor Ehrlich.

A dozen municipalities in Montgomery County would be given authority to regulate the size of houses under a bill approved by the General Assembly in the final days of this year’s session. The legislation, unanimously approved by the House of Delegates and Senate, allows incorporated towns in southern Montgomery to set standards for how tall, wide or bulky a single-family house should be. If the bill is signed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), the municipalities — Garrett Park, Glen Echo, Kensington, Somerset, Takoma Park, Martin’s Additions, North Chevy Chase, the town of Chevy Chase, Chevy Chase Village, Chevy Chase Section Three, Chevy Chase Section Five and Chevy Chase View — will have expanded powers to limit so-called McMansions. Ehrlich has yet to take a position on the bill.

“This gives these small towns the ability to experiment with different ways to address the issue,” said Del. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Montgomery), one of the architects of the legislation. “Some of the older neighborhoods wanted more restrictive standards.”


“If we wanted to preserve the particular character of our own little community, this gives us a little more opportunity to do that,” said Carolyn Shawaker, mayor of Garrett Park.


Across the region, residents in older neighborhoods near the Capital Beltway have been wrestling over how to keep traditional houses from being torn down and replaced with larger structures that some say are out of character with surrounding structures. The debate often pits neighbor against neighbor, with one person’s dream house being another’s eyesore.

While I support the authority of localities to create zoning regulations, the antipathy toward so-called mini-mansions baffles me. While I understand the desire to preserve the historic character of truly old neighborhoods, as well as the interest of homeowners in not having multi-family or much lower value properties built in their neighborhood, I can’t see why anyone would be opposed to nicer homes.

My wife and I live in a subdivision that was once part of George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. The homes were built in the early and mid-1960s and have what for this area are considered large yards. Slowly, the older, smaller, less attractive homes are being bought by developers and replaced by much nicer, more expensive new homes. We’re delighted, as it not only improves the aesthetic quality of the area but increases our own property value. It also encourages others, including those like us who plan to stay put, to invest money in renovating their own homes since the fear that they will not be able to recoup the investment on resale because of the value of other homes in the community is diminished. This strikes me as a win all the way around.

Then again, I have never quite grasped the argument against “gentrification,” whereby blighted slums are torn down and replaced by decent housing. I understand, and sympathize with, the desire to ensure that the working poor can afford a place to live. But the antipathy toward gentrification and mini-mansions has always struck me as visceral–a reaction against an upper middle class lifestyle–than about concern for the poor.

Update: Pace commenter Mac‘s horror that I would think it good that the area “where George Washington lived,” I should issue a clarification. Washington was an incredibly wealthy man who owned hundreds of acres of land. While my house is less than five miles from the Mount Vernon mansion, it was just farmland when Washington owned it. My neighborhood was developed in the 1960s in almost exactly the manner described by Charles Hill: “at least around my part of the world, suburban homes built in the early 1960s tend to be something less than distinctive unless they’re seriously high-buck; this was an era of cookie-cutter architecture.” Indeed, in my neighborhood there were apparently three basic models to chose from and they were repeated for several blocks. The new houses being built are, to my tastes, simply much more attractive.

As to the point Mac makes at his blog, I’m enough of an old style conservative to sometimes prefer the old ways. I’ve sufficiently Southern to have a respect for tradition and culture. I’m enough of a libertarian, however, to think that those who want to preserve the old ways ought to pay for it with their own money rather than someone else’s. Edmund Burke, whom Mac would presumably admit as an Authentic Conservative, observed that, “Property was not made by government, but government by and for it. The one is primary and self-existent; the other is secondary and derivative.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. CGHill says:

    I live in what my city calls an Urban Conservation District; the rules are somewhat more lax than in a true Historic District, and the emphasis is on preserving the “streetscape.” You can build what you like, but you cannot exceed the height (in stories) of the original dwelling, nor can you extend beyond its original front line. Lots around here tend to be 8000-10000 square feet; this ordinance (which, I hasten to add, was requested by petition) would make it very difficult to build a 5000-square-foot house in place of a 1500.

  2. my cat says:

    I’m a middle class home owner in a gated community that still has lots on the market. I am planning to retire here. I dislike the McMansions that are being built because I can see that a shift is happening: my middle class enclave is becoming a rich person’s enclave and I might be forced out. Granted, as rich people move in, the value of my house goes up, so I could make money if I sold it. But I don’t want to sell it. I want to live here. My family has owed property here for forty years.
    Yes my reaction is visceral. I dislike the big money people who buy in and them start demanding changes that will raise averybody’s amenity fees and eventually force my departure from the place I have been connected financially and spiritually for most of my life.

  3. Eneils Bailey says:

    I hate damn do-gooders, looking out for everybody, at some body’s expense. I can see some of the same arguments here that are in the purposed SUV restrictions. How long before the government starts mandating the color, size, and model of your house furnishings. Whoops…sorry…that has already happened for your crapper.

  4. floyd says:

    where i live they have lower limits on house size, so i’m not allowed to build my “dream” house. as long as it stays behind the set backs,easements and doesn’t block aviation; i say have at it, they are going to tax you into the street soon enough anyway if you do. you can’t own property if someone else controls your use of it. our freedom was not lost by force alone, it was lost by constantly narrowing our options.

  5. aonymous says:

    Taxes should go down?

  6. Mac says:

    So… you can’t see why a community would put their own values and their faith and their love of their own way of life above profit?

    You can’t see the reasoning behind the idea that the size and the price of a house doesn’t have anything to do with the value and the culture of a community?

    You can’t see the fact that a house that has stood for 120 years, and has housed generation after generation of a family – might not be worth more than any McMansion slapped together by some half-assed developer?

    So you, like so many other Gordon Gekko Conservatives, are convinced that the value and the flavor and the soul a community is based only the monetary value of the houses that populate it?

    Is that what your saying? Really?

    So… as the neighborhood in the community where you live and where George Washington lived is being bulldozed and rebuilt with poorly built little McMansions that all look alike, your ONLY though is “KACHING!! There goes the value of MY HOUSE!!”??

    You have no sadness for the history, or the sense of community or the beautiful thing that’s being bulldozed, but only a “Hallelujah!! Maybe they’ll buy ME out NEXT!!”??

    In addition, respectfully, I’d like to point out that you misunderstand the term “gentrification”.

    Gentrification doesn’t mean the tearing down of ruined and and putrid old neighborhoods and their rebuilding. That’s known as “redevelopment”.

    Gentrification typically means that older and more run down homes in older communities are being rehabbed and returned to their original worth and standing before they were allowed to be ran down.

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that to you “gentrification” could only mean the bulldozing and rebuilding, but… there it is.

    Food for thought

  7. McGehee says:

    Getting back on topic, I think the one reasonable objection to “McMansions” has to do with the way, in some communities, they’re taking up almost the entire lot with the footprint of the house. That’s ridiculous.

    Anyway, I’d much rather see rundown old houses bulldozed than such things (so little valued by some these days) as liberty — which includes property rights.

  8. Mr. Econotarian says:

    People who want nice newer houses will move to the greenfield developments farther away from the city, putting greater pressure on transit (read: gridlock).

    I should know – I am one of them.

  9. floyd says:

    MAC; a little zoning and codes were thought to be a good thing when started forty years or so ago. now it has gotten so bad that the local officials control every minor detail of design and structure of new housing. some communities even control numbers and placement of outlets,color and type of siding, uniform setbacks[not min or max]. some even regulate what type or age of vehicle can be parked in the driveway. what choices do you think the owner ought to retain [if any]?

  10. Herb says:

    I live outside of a very small community (Population about 80), and don’t have to worry about “Big Brother”, neighbors or anyone else telling me how to live, how big or small of a home to live in or where I should go to the bathroom at. I just don’t have all the worries expressed here in the article or comments. I don’t have traffic jams or have neighbors living 50 feet from me. I chose this place because I don’t want anyone telling me how to live.

    To those who do have those troubles expressed, Remember, you made the choice, so, don’t complain.

  11. akdfjo says:

    I�ve sufficiently Southern to have a respect for tradition and culture.

    What is the connection between “Southern” and “respect for tradition and culture”? Only southerners have a corner on the tradition and culture market?

    Have you ever been to Boston? London? Teotihuacán?

    Respect for tradition and culture seems to be a basic human trait found in virtually all civilization. In fact, showing “respect for tradition and culture” is probably a defining trait for civilizations.