West Lake Hills city officials grapple with large homes, look at options to limit house sizes

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Developer Jon Luce began working on homes in the Westlake area in 1978. At the time, he and his colleagues used to joke that nobody would ever pay $100,000 for a house, and no one needed more than 2,000 square feet of space.

“So much for our fortune-telling skills,” Luce said.

Home size trends changed in spurts as buyers became more affluent, according to Luce.

“Their lifestyles changed with their affluence, and they started wanting bigger houses,” he said. “Builders will do whatever they have to do to satisfy a market demand. That’s been going on all these years.”

Some lots in West Lake Hills were still vacant prior to 10 years ago, Mayor Linda Anthony said. As those mostly-small sized lots were purchased over the last decade, many owners came forward seeking numerous variances to the city code in order to build new, larger homes.

The problem was not with any particular variance, but rather that people would ask for nine variances, for example, in order to squeeze a home onto minimal land instead of designing it to be compatible with that lot.

About six years ago, Anthony and some other city officials brought up the idea of limiting home sizes in the city.

“I look back on it now and am amused because I was putting forward a 5,000-square-foot limit,” she said. “Now our average home size is about 6,500 square feet, and it just keeps going up.”

The concept did not gain any traction six years ago, but when the idea resurfaced last December, City Council members expressed interest and have since continued the discussion and directed staff to research various options.

“I think what has changed is the number of larger homes we keep seeing come through,” Anthony said regarding the current council’s interest. “We’re increasingly having to look at granting variances for things that don’t comply with code simply because someone is trying to put as much structure on a property as they can. At the end of last year there was almost palpable frustration from some council members.”

City officials are also hearing more from residents who are displeased with the changing nature of the city, Anthony said. They have sent emails and spoken at public meetings about the destruction of the character of the neighborhoods and a total disregard for the master plan, which states structures should blend in with the topography.

“I’ve heard comments about how pretty soon West Lake Hills will be regarded as West Lake Homes,” Anthony said. “They say they don’t see the hills anymore; we’re losing our tree canopy; everything that sets us apart from what’s outside West Lake Hills is disappearing.”

Next steps

Per council’s request, Anjali Naini, coordinator of building and development services, put together several options the city could pursue to restrict large homes. City Attorney Alan Bojorquez is reviewing those options to determine the legality and details of what could be enacted.

“We’re still very much in the preliminary research stage,” Naini said. “Once we find out [from Bojorquez] what’s feasible, we’ll give council an update to see if they want to implement one or all of the options.”

Council would discuss, listen to public input and possibly host town hall meetings on the topic, then undergo the process of creating an official ordinance, policy or regulation to implement any ideas—should members choose to do anything at all.

“If we decided to make setback requirements greater, for example, we would need to figure out where in the code to put that and how, and it would go through the process of approval with the zoning and planning commission and City Council,” Naini said.

The mayor and council agreed they will not seek to establish a single square-footage size limitation for the entire city. They are looking at options in which both the size of the lot and its topographical makeup are taken into account and want to give residents the opportunity to control what limits are set and where. Two options that have generated the most interest are floor-area ratio and overlay zones.

Floor-area ratio controls the size of a structure proportionally to its lot. Bill Vandersteel, a West Lake Hills resident since 1994, a retired architect and member of the city’s zoning and planning commission, thinks this is the most appropriate and effective strategy.

He said floor-area ratio is fair because it does not establish arbitrary incremental thresholds where a tenth of an acre can make a sudden large difference on a regulated building size.

Floor-area ratios can more easily be codified and applied to different zoning districts—such as residential or business—and the lot is a clearly defined quantity regardless of its shape and configuration of boundaries relative to streets, adjacent lots and resultant setbacks, Vandersteel said.

“Adding floor-area ratios would be a new regulation, not a change to an existing one,” he said. “This might present less of a conflict that might arise from changing previously established ordinances.”

Present  limiting factors in the city include building setback requirements and impervious cover.

City Administrator Robert Wood expressed concern about floor-area ratios. He said if all the lots in West Lake Hills were similar it would make sense, but giving someone a specific footprint based on lot size becomes complicated when half of it can not be built upon due to a ravine or other terrain issue.

“It’s more appropriate for a flatter, regularly laid-out subdivision or community,” Anthony agreed. “It could defeat the purpose [of limiting home sizes] due to our topography and the irregularity of our streets and lot sizes.”

Adopting overlay zoning districts on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis at homeowners’ requests is the other option officials are discussing. The city’s neighborhood boundaries would need to be defined and mapped, Naini said, adding a similar process is followed for historical districts. The city would need to receive requests from 65 percent —or some other predetermined number—of neighborhood residents to consider creating the zoning overlay.

Anthony said she likes the option because limitations would be coming from a neighborhood as opposed to the city imposing a concept.

“It offers a lot of flexibility,” she said. “It’s not us picking some number or rule out of a planning manual and saying, ‘This is it, folks.’ However, I do see a challenge in creating them and working out logistical problems.”

Wood agreed and said creating varying rules for different parts of town could become complicated and heated regarding where to draw boundaries for each set of regulations.

Lots to consider

Any attempt to limit home sizes must consider the unique character of lots in West Lake Hills.

“All the lots are different; there are almost no two the same,” Luce said. “More than anything else the lot dictates the design of the house.”

Luce said his team has always worked to keep homes below the tree canopy to blend in with the landscape. While not all home buyers care, there is a market segment that appreciates such design.

Since 2010 most of Luce’s home designs have ranged from about 3,500 to 7,000 square feet. He said his firm works to keep buildings efficient and as small as the market will allow.

“We build primarily speculative houses in the 5 million to 8 million-dollar range,” he said. “We lose a lot of sales because our houses are ‘not big enough.’”

He said most buyers are single people or empty nesters, and those with children say the house is too small.

“I understand why builders are constructing these bigger houses,” he said. “There is a demand. We’ve just always chosen not to do those.”

When Faith Rubenstein and her husband became empty nesters, they decided to move from their 4,500-square-foot house into a new home in the Westlake area. To keep the space functional and not excessive, their rule to the architect was each room needed to be used every day. The couple’s home is 3,600 square feet including the garage.

“I’m not suggesting that is minimal,” Rubenstein said. “But compared to some of the houses around here it is surprisingly small.”

She said she is glad they insisted upon a smaller footprint and finds it more manageable.

“I’ve been watching this trend forever and never understood it,” she said.

According to area Realtor Clayton Bullock, much of the desire for a large home has to do with maximizing the value of the land. He said if someone only needs 4,000 square feet for their family but can afford to build 5,000, they often build bigger just to maximize value for resale. Opposingly, many families Bullock works with only want what they need because the prices are so high; some will settle for less house in order to get into Eanes ISD and the area in general.

Bullock is currently working on a listing for an 1,800-square-foot house built on 0.45 acres in the late 1960s. He said it would require a massive remodel and will likely be torn down completely.

“The dirt alone is so valuable,” he said. “It will probably go between $850,000 and $925,000, and most of that is going to be lot value.”

Anthony said she realizes the lots are so expensive that many people feel they need to build something big enough to get their money back for the land. Her objection is there are parts of the city where one can see roofline to roofline, she said, adding it is not as bad as certain areas past the city limits where there is no discernible separation.

“But is that in our future?” Anthony said. “I hope not. That’s what really scares me—if this trend continues and is taken to an extreme.”
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