For skinny houses, a chilly reception

The Baltimore Sun

It looks almost like an average-size house that's been sliced in half. At 12 feet wide, the neat, new single-family home is squeezed onto the slenderest of strips of land on a Brooklyn Park street of modest, post-World War II houses.

The home joins an 18-foot-wide one built in the past year in the community that spans Anne Arundel County and Baltimore City. A similar house is planned for another of the 25-foot-wide empty lots in the area.

While building on these infill lots in mature, developed communities with established roads, sidewalks and other infrastructure is considered "smart growth," residents of Brooklyn Park say the skinny houses threaten the community's identity and decrease property values. While there's nothing neighbors can do about the homes already built - which are legal under zoning law and, local real estate agents say, examples of affordable new housing in the county - the community is fighting the construction of the third narrow home.

"What used to be somebody's yard is now turning into a building lot," said Gary O'Neil, a member of the board of governors of the Arundel Neighborhoods Association.

A 12-foot-wide house, he said, "is without a doubt the most ridiculous-looking thing we've ever seen."

The tiny infill-lot houses in Brooklyn Park seem to be isolated in Anne Arundel County, though neighboring counties approach small lots and infill lots in different ways. The 18-foot-wide house on Orchard Avenue is over the city line in Baltimore, where the minimum width for a free-standing house is 16 feet. The city has not seen a similar trend toward narrow houses, said Laurie Feinberg, division chief for comprehensive planning.

Baltimore County considers any lot less than 55 feet wide "undersized" and deals with them on a case-by-case basis. People who want to build on these lots are required to go to the planning office and get a design review, and sometimes the county will require them to put two lots together to build a house, said Arnold "Pat" Keller, director of planning and zoning.

Howard County Councilwoman Courtney Watson recently proposed legislation that would allow landowners to sell the building rights to their property to a higher-density building area, such as for apartments, in order to maintain green space in communities but still allow landowners to benefit from the value of their property.

"We're trying to protect the integrity of the existing neighborhoods," she said. "[Infill is] becoming more and more of a problem as the larger pieces of land become developed. Now there's less land to be developed, so now people are looking at these smaller lots that developers wouldn't have bothered with before."

Brooklyn Park is an area that blossomed in the 1940s as World War II workers settled in. The last census reported that 11,000 people lived in this 3-square-mile patch of land, and many residents have lived there for generations, said historian John Greenstreet.

To this day, it's one of the few places left in Anne Arundel where first-time or low-income homeowners can afford to buy a house, according to the county's "small area plan" for the community. In June, the average sale price of a home in the county was $427,655, according to the Metropolitan Regional information Systems, while in Brooklyn Park, the average is $271,181, according to Steve Graves of Coldwell Banker.

While most houses sit on two combined 25-foot-wide lots, the new ones sit on just one. Houses on the narrower lots are supposed to be 12 feet wide to ensure a certain amount of space - and privacy - between the house and the edge of the property, but property owner Shawn McCarthy applied for and received a variance to build a two-story, 18-foot-wide by 40-foot-long house on Seward Avenue, said his lawyer, Robert Fuoco.

McCarthy isn't out to antagonize the neighborhood, his lawyer said.

"You always want to make a proposal that is accepted by the community," Fuoco said. "You don't want to be a bad neighbor."

The point is that "it's a legal building lot," he said.

Robert Cook, who owns the house next door, moved into the neighborhood four years ago, believing he had bought both pieces of land until February, when McCarthy put up a fence. He says the new house will be "right on top" of his: "I'm going to be staring right into the windows of the other house."

Other neighbors were also shocked to learn that houses could be built on 25-foot lots.

"When my father built his house in the 1950s and '60s, they had to have two building lots," O'Neil said.

Larry Tom, planning and zoning director for Anne Arundel County, could find no information on whether residents were formerly required to buy two lots to build a home. It is legal to build on 25-foot-wide lots today, he said, based on the code last updated in 2005.

Zoning laws require a minimum lot width of 60 to 80 feet at the front of a single-family house in Brooklyn Park, but "lots that may be narrower are still legal because of the age of the lot," he said.

"If you own a legal lot, you have the right to build on it, so long as you can meet all of the zoning code provisions regarding setback and height," he said.

The Arundel civic association is challenging that, appealing the variance granted to McCarthy at a county Board of Appeals hearing Wednesday. And County Councilman Daryl Jones, who represents Brooklyn Park, is drafting a bill this summer that he says could help alleviate the problem, but he declined to elaborate.

But residents fear that more small properties will be sold in the coming months before the bill will be done, especially by older residents who need the money in a sputtering economy. An additional 1,600 townhouses are slated to be added to the community, which will be a major problem for the county police and schools, O'Neil said.

"We're hitting the point of oversaturation," O'Neil said.

These smaller houses, however, might be helping the neighborhood by providing affordable housing, said Diane Kenworthy, real estate agent for the vacant 12-foot-wide house, located in Pumphrey on Belle Grove Road. Many people showed interest in the several months it has been on the market, and it is now under contract for just under $240,000, she said.

"Everybody loves that house," she said. "There are a significant amount of people who want to live in that area who need affordable housing."

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