Moderating McMansions

Temporary restrictions on home design take effect at month’s end in East and North Sacramento neighborhoods as the council seeks community input on a proposed citywide ordinance

East Sacramento resident Lisa Schmidt stands before her 1929 home, an example of a housing design that’s too tall and too boxy to be fast-tracked through the city’s new permit process.

East Sacramento resident Lisa Schmidt stands before her 1929 home, an example of a housing design that’s too tall and too boxy to be fast-tracked through the city’s new permit process.

Photo By Larry Dalton

East Sacramento resident Lisa Schmidt stood before the Sacramento City Council at the June 27 meeting and apologized; she was nervous. But that didn’t stop her from asking why city staff had determined that houses like her traditional colonial-style residence have a “detrimental impact on the unique character of the neighborhood.” Her rectangular house—about the shape of a tall shoebox—was built in 1929.

Though Schmidt’s house was part of the original fabric of her East Sac street, it shares design features with newer homes that are out of favor with current neighbors. A new ordinance to address the issue would require an additional layer of design review. Proposals to build houses where the second story isn’t set back from the first or that are too tall—similar to the design of Schmidt’s house—would have to be approved by the city’s design-review director.

Schmidt criticized the council for drafting the ordinance without asking for input from neighborhood associations or the Chamber of Commerce, which she represented. On top of that, she was insulted.

In spite of Schmidt’s protest, the council passed the interim ordinance, which will take effect at the end of July for portions of East Sacramento and North Sacramento—areas where original homes are being torn down and replaced with “McMansions” or smothered by large additions. Michael Greene, a resident who helped design the ordinance, noted that homes are going up over East Sacramento that don’t look like others in the surrounding neighborhood. “They look like they were moved in by helicopter from Natomas.”

City staff called the new ordinance a way to fast-track development that fits into the fabric of East Sacramento and North Sacramento neighborhoods, while providing review for developments that might not. As Councilman Steve Cohn pointed out, once the original historic homes are gone, there’s no way to bring them back. And even plans that go through Design Review Director Luis Sanchez still may be approved.

But some residents saw the ordinance as just a way to limit the development of big houses. And privately, some of them complained that the city is dictating what’s aesthetically pleasing and what isn’t.

According to the city’s figures, 6 percent of all new single-family homes here were planned for North Sacramento in 2006. Only 1 percent were proposed for East Sacramento. Remodels were much more common. Nine percent of remodels were in North Sacramento, and 17 percent were in East Sacramento.

Other council members, including Bonnie Pannell, noted that their districts are also sprouting large two-story homes that dwarf their neighbors.

“I don’t think any area of the city is immune to this,” said Councilman Kevin McCarty.

A permanent version of the ordinance may extend to other threatened neighborhoods, including Land Park and South Sacramento. And while the council noted that the ordinance wasn’t intended to target original Sacramento homes like Schmidt’s, which Cohn said was “beautiful,” it did agree with her that the city should hear what neighborhood groups across the city have to say before the new rules are made permanent.

Design restrictions may find opposition in various pockets of the city, including East Sacramento, where they’re set to take effect at the end of July. “We’re sending a letter to oppose it,” said Rian Troth, president of the McKinley East Sacramento Neighborhood Association. Troth said that although he agrees with the intent of the ordinance, his association wants it suspended until there’s been outreach to community groups.

Over the next few months, city staff will seek input from architects, developers and community members on a citywide ordinance. They will report back to the council in 60 days and expect to take six months to draft the ordinance.

Design Review Director Sanchez called the debate symptomatic of “growing pains.”