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Big Homes, Small Lots: New Rules For Tearing Down Old Houses In Prairie Village

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Prairie Village is trying to balance an influx of newcomers wanting to build big houses against the desires of homeowners who want to preserve the city’s character.";

New guidelines will make it harder to build big homes on small lots in Prairie Village as the Johnson County suburb tries to get ahead of the “teardown” trend that’s pitted newcomers against residents who like the charm of older houses.

The city is trying to find the balance between encouraging development and maintaining its classic look, Prairie Village Mayor Laura Wassmer told Up To Date’s Steve Kraske Wednesday. In the last five years, 126 older homes – mostly ranch and Cape Cod-style – have been torn down to make way for new construction.

“It’s definitely causing some tension between neighbors, the question is how far can you restrict the guidelines and still encourage redevelopment,” Wassmer said. “I don’t think anybody argues that having reinvestment in Prairie Village is a bad thing ... it’s just finding that sweet spot where everyone can be happy.”

The issue has been a point of contention on city council agendas for the past two years. On one side there are residents who want to preserve Prairie Village’s traditional charm. On the other are families who want more space and modern upgrades. They’ve been buying up older homes, tearing them down and building much bigger houses in their place.

New regulations outlined last week aim to appease both sides by making sure the new, large homes blend into existing neighborhoods.

The biggest issue is the height of the new homes, which comply with city code but appear much larger than the older houses on either side of them. Residents who live in older houses are also concerned with the square footage of the new builds. Wassmer said the older homes currently occupy about 17-20 percent of their lots, but the new ones going up tend to hit the maximum allowance of 30 percent, significantly larger than the house next door.

Last week the city council put regulations on aesthetic features like driveways, landscaping and garage dimensions. These new guidelines come two years after the city council lowered the maximum home height on small lots from 35 feet to 29 feet and expanded the required distance from homes to side property lines.

But some residents still don’t think the guidelines go far enough. The city plans to hold public forums in July to seek input from residents.  

Finding that consensus will be a challenge. A recent survey showed that the city is evenly split over the issue of teardowns.

Councilman Tucker Poling says the issues aren’t just aesthetic. He says homeowners are worried about soaring property taxes as newer, nicer homes – often called “McMansions” – drive up home values. Poling says between new builds and a recent tax increase, property values around him have gone up 26 percent.

“Right now, in terms of where we were at in our lives when we bought our house a few years ago, none of us would have been able to afford these houses,” Poling said.   

So while it might pay off when current residents sell their home, he says for people who plan to stay, the spike is bordering unaffordable. They want to stay in Prairie Village for all the reasons newcomers want to buy – the schools, the shops, the sense of community.

Councilwoman Serena Schermoly said millennials in particular are looking for a little more than the existing housing stock can provide.

“Houses in my ward have two or three bedrooms and one bathroom – and that bathroom is the size of a small closet,” Schermoly said. “What residents that are moving in are looking for is newer homes and bigger spaces to live with a family.”

Wassmer says she hopes the public forums next month can bring some clarity to the issue. A final vote is expected in September.

Sophia Tulp is a KCUR news intern. Follow her on Twitter @sophia_tulp.

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