Huge homes are rising faster than ever on Long Island’s North Shore, generating tensions between new buyers and homeowners who oppose the mega-mansions, and challenging local officials trying to manage the construction within existing building codes.
Gold Coast villages from Lake Success to Roslyn Harbor, known for their proximity to Manhattan and strong schools and expansive lawns, are dealing with a proliferation of old-home demolition followed by new construction that is bringing noise, dirt and a new skyline to their neighborhoods.
Flower Hill, a village of about 4,700 residents on the Port Washington peninsula, has issued 23 demolition permits since the beginning of 2014 after having none in 2013 and 2012, and officials are scrambling to regulate the increase in home size.
“It’s a conundrum,” village Administrator Ronnie Shatzkamer said of the building boom.
“This is the way people want to live these days,” Shatzkamer said. “Is the code behind the times or are these lots even up to an acre really too small?”
The increase mirrors national trends, real estate experts said.
A new generation of home buyers, buoyed by the post-recession economy, wants larger interiors with open floor plans, higher ceilings and spacious areas for family rooms. The demands have shifted from what buyers who moved to these North Shore villages in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s wanted: smaller homes with bigger backyards.
The median floor area nationally for a single-family home went from 2,135 square feet in 2009 to 2,467 in 2015, according to U.S. Census data. That figure was 1,595 in 1980.
An invulnerable movement
The spike in large houses dates to the 1980s and has weathered recessions, shocks to the housing market and the popularity of varying architectural tastes and style. After the Great Recession of 2008, higher-income buyers were among the first to seek mortgages that were tougher to secure and found record-low levels of inventory.
“As we started to crawl out of the Great Recession, we expected that homes would be smaller,” said Stephen Melman, director of economic services at the National Association of Home Builders, based in Washington, D.C.
Surprisingly, he said, “the share of large homes increased, because the only people who were trading up had enough money to qualify for the mortgages. They were buying homes with an increasing number of beds, bathrooms, garages. They were stretched to an extreme.”
The shift back to larger homes has the potential to alter the makeup of Long Island communities.
“It says more about the way our society has changed,” said Lorna Lewis, superintendent of the Plainview-Old Bethpage school district and a past president of the Nassau County Council of School Superintendents. “It’s the very opposite of what the neighbors before them valued. They valued the land, they valued smaller homes, whereas the new trend is to have a home of convenience, where everything is in the home: more bedrooms, playrooms.”
Villages across the North Shore have adopted different approaches to the oversized building trend. Some want to restrict the big houses. Others want the tax money that comes with larger residences.
“Most of the people that are purchasing these spec houses want the largest house they can get,” said Stewart Senter, CEO and president of The Automatic Group in Hempstead, which builds luxury homes on speculation.
But developers, in many cases, have less than an acre to work with. “It’s two forces fighting one another,” he said.
The buyers often come from Manhattan and Brooklyn, fleeing high rents and seeking more room, and are in search of top school districts. They are demolishing split-levels and Colonials, and replacing them with taller and wider homes, filling the lots with houses that reach from one property line to the other, leaving little if any yard. Decades-old 3,000-square-foot homes are being replaced by houses with 5,000 to 7,000 square feet of living space.
When an existing home is purchased, “they tear it down immediately,” said former Lake Success Mayor Ron Cooper. “There’s not a house that’s built in Lake Success anymore that isn’t of the ‘McMansion’ type.”
Overbuilding affects Nassau County communities more than those in Suffolk because of the scarcity of land available in the more developed western part of Long Island, experts said. Residents are showing up by the dozens for planning board hearings about a single new home.
Rich Bentley, president of the Council of Greater Manhasset Civic Associations, said when a new house is built in the community, a group of active residents frequently flood his inbox with emails. The goal among neighbors is often not to stop construction, but to secure concessions from developers.
“We start putting together the neighborhood, getting email lists, so if we have a public hearing on a property we can mobilize quickly,” Bentley said.
Manhasset “looks less like a well-established, quaint community. It looks like an affluent neighborhood where we build the biggest possible structure that we can.”
Mitchell Pally, CEO of the Long Island Builders Institute, a trade organization representing developers, said Long Islanders are consumed by the “fear that somebody is going to knock down a small house and put in a bigger house because there’s no land to put a bigger house on in many cases.”
The demand for oversized homes is so great that contractors are building big without waiting for clients.
The custom-sized homes have triple-glazed windows, cellphone charging stations, garage staircases for mechanics to enter and bypass the front door, and second laundry rooms.
“If the house fits the desire of the buyer, it’s something they can literally move into in 30 days,” Senter said.
In Roslyn Heights, a historic district divides the hamlet, barring changes to much of the architecture. On MacGregor Avenue, which is outside the district, huge houses are sprouting up next to modest brick homes.
“You drive down the street and instead of having these quaint, Colonial-style houses built in the ’20s and ’30s, you now have these massive” houses, said Larry Vigneaux, 66, a Roslyn Heights resident who has lived on MacGregor Avenue since 1980.
In Roslyn Harbor, village officials last year reversed a height limit increase from several years ago and limited residential building height to 35 feet from 42 feet in an effort to limit the trend.
East Hills approved 62 teardown applications in the past five years, and more than 20 await a village review. Lake Success has issued 25 demolition applications since 2012. By comparison, Roslyn has seen two knockdowns, and North Hills and Munsey Park have seen three.
“Because the inventory is so low, we’ve been seeing more and more full price and bidding wars happening on modest size homes” to tear them down, said Janine Fakiris, an agent with Daniel Gale Sotheby’s International Realty in Old Brookville.
With a hot seller’s market on the North Shore — and the tax revenue that comes with it — some villages are looking to draft code changes to approve more teardown applications. Villages are weighing proposals to accommodate the tastes of new buyers.
Flower Hill last year approved fining developers $10,000 for every foot a home exceeds height limits, but is now studying ways to allow the large homes to be built without having to issue zoning variances.
Changes being studied include exempting structures such as porches and porticos from overall volume calculations. But village officials have no plans to allow taller homes, Shatzkamer said. Nor will the village allow property-line-to-property-line development. Each side of a home must have a minimum 20-yard setback, so that they look proportional and developers don’t attempt to meet the minimum requirement on one side and overbuild on the other.
Some villages are loosening decades-old restrictions. Old Westbury last summer proposed allowing homes and hard surfaces to be larger to accommodate tennis courts and swimming pools. Village officials also are proposing to allow residents to have smaller setbacks.
“The real estate values of the village are down, and I think this is going to help,” Village Trustee Ed Novick said. “The larger the house, the more it’s going to be worth.”
The rise in construction has created complications village officials say they didn’t foresee.
Flower Hill has had to send village officials to a building site to regulate construction traffic clogging residential streets.
An increase in construction workers led the village board last year to require portable toilets to be installed at construction sites without bathrooms. The portable toilets cannot be kept in the street or a right-of-way, must be 15 feet from the curb, and be locked after hours.
Villages also have fielded increasing numbers of noise complaints.
“It’s like a war zone, there’s dirt all over the street, there’s banging and there’s clanging — constant, all day long,” Shatzkamer said.
Real estate and municipal experts said communities should work to codify exactly how they want their homes to look to help minimize conflicts.
Michael Russo, an associate at Hawkins Webb Jaeger, a Melville architectural and engineering firm, said if a village doesn’t have a strict code, conflicts arise far too late in the process when a home takes shape and the owner has “already spent a lot of money in the building design.”
“The reality of it is — the entire label of ‘McMansions’ is out of fear,” said Mark Laffey, co-owner and principal of Laffey Real Estate in Greenvale. “People just don’t like change, but change is inevitable — it’s a question of embracing positive change.”
The village of 4,700 residents has become an epicenter for “McMansion” worries. Here, officials are scrambling to propose new laws to regulate construction, but also, accommodations for the luxury real estate. The village has approved fines for developers who overbuild, charging them $10,000 for each square foot a home exceeds the height limit.
Thirteen homes have been approved for demolition so far this year, up from 8 in 2015, and 2 in 2014. No homes were demolished in 2012 and 2013. The village, which issued 4 floor area variances in 2013, and 5 in 2014, issued 11 last year, and 12 so far this year.
The village recently required homeowners to have portable toilets on construction sites and that each side of a home comply with a minimum 20-yard setback, so that the houses look proportional.
The village is proposing smaller setbacks, and more room for impervious spaces, to allow for tennis courts and swimming pools.
Homes could have 20 percent more volume, easing the way for three-car garages and taller ceilings. The space for impervious surfaces would increase by 5 percent, in order to accommodate tennis courts and swimming pools. Attic space won’t be counted in volume calculations, allowing for larger homes.
The village last year reversed a height limit allowing homes to be as tall as 42 feet. The limit is back to 35 feet.
Median Square Feet of Floor Area in New Single-Family Houses Completed
Source: U.S. Census Data