How much house is too much house?

Ed Quillen

Some folks in the montane portion of Boulder County, comfortable in their small cabins, are annoyed because they’re getting new neighbors who build immense mansions, and they’d like the county to take action. The people building the big houses argue that this is really none of the government’s business.But house size has been the government’s business for some time. In Chaffee County, where I live, county regulations specify a minimum dwelling size of 600 square feet. I know people who grew up in less than that, and if I think I can be comfortable in 500 square feet of house on rural property, what business is it of the government’s?Governments do make it their business, though. They also specify the kind of construction. I might get a variance to live in a camping trailer for a year or two while a regular house is under construction, but the county won’t let me occupy the trailer permanently.Even if my maternal grandfather managed for decades without electricity or running water on his homestead in Converse County, Wyo. (in a house of perhaps 400 square feet), that would now be illegal.In other words, we have all kinds of building regulations that work against the poor. (Maybe we should be politically correct and refer to them instead as the “economically challenged.”)But in general, we let the rich build whatever they please. To be fair, there are a few exceptions. Pitkin County is a refuge for billionaires and home to the 56,000-square-foot house owned by Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia (currently listed for only $135 million, in case you’re interested).Pitkin, however, now has a maximum house size of 5,750 square feet, which is bigger than my lot. If you really need more, you have to buy “transferable development rights.”At any rate, if it is proper for a county to set a “minimum dwelling size,” then it must also be proper to set a maximum. Why might a county want to?As right-thinkers often remind us, modesty used to be considered a virtue in the United States. Houses of immense size are ostentatious, not modest, and so limiting house size might easily be construed as a means of improving public virtue.Further, who wants to live around people who must display their elephantine houses, boats, Hummers, etc.? Limiting house size is one way to keep the wrong kind of people from moving in.There’s also an economic argument. Owners of larger houses do pay more in property taxes. But do they pay enough more to cover the public costs of maintaining the county roads that will be traversed by the scores of trucks that haul the gravel, concrete, timbers, excavation equipment, etc., for the mansion’s construction, and then its maintenance? For the demands on law enforcement and emergency services and fire protection made by people who are used to getting whatever they want, when they want it?The studies I’ve seen indicate that rural development doesn’t come even close to paying its own way. It’s something like 69 cents in tax revenue for every additional dollar of costs.Further, the immense houses may have gardeners, pool boys, grooms, maids, cooks and the like. If they live in on-site servants’ quarters, there’s more strain on the local utility system, school-bus routes and the like. If they don’t, there is more need for “affordable housing” and more commuting with crowded roads, air pollution and oil consumption.There are two fair ways to deal with this. One is to quit discriminating against the poor. If somebody wants to live in a 400-square-foot log cabin without running water, why not let him, just as long as his privy doesn’t pollute our air or water?The other is to conduct a thorough economic analysis, then set a reasonable maximum of 3,000 square feet. Bigger houses would be allowed, but for every square foot above the maximum, the property tax would be doubled or tripled. That is, the owner would pay normal rates for the first 3,000 square feet, and higher rates on the rest.People have a right to demonstrate how superior they think they are to the rest of us. And if they have to pay more for prestige than they do now, then it should make a gargantuan house even more impressive as a status symbol.Ed Quillen is a writer in Salida, Colo., where he produces regular op-ed columns for The Denver Post and publishes Colorado Central, a small regional monthly magazine.


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