Under modern land-use law, cities effectively have approval over all designs to build houses, based on aesthetics. This is often an arbitrary, and daunting process, as it is very difficult to know in advance which designs will, and will not comply with the government’s tastes (unless you hire one of their preferred architects). There are serious First Amendment, Takings, and Due Process issues with these vague and nebulous standards, but they have been upheld by courts, except in some really egregious cases.
The Times has a lengthy feature about neighborly spat to stop the construction of a modern house in a historic district. Even though a design made its way through the gauntlet of the approval process, a neighbor and other concerned citizens have now held it up in court.
IN September, Louis Cherry, an architect here, received a building permit and the necessary approvals to begin constructing a house for himself and his wife, Marsha Gordon, on an empty lot in Oakwood, a historic district in Raleigh. The neighborhood features a variety of architectural styles, from postwar bungalows to Greek Revivals, shotguns to Queen Annes. Construction began in October and the home, modern but modestly so, is nearly complete.
But it is also at risk of demolition. Not because of a tornado or termites or some other natural disaster, but because one of his neighbors doesn’t want it there.
Through a series of protracted appeals, the neighbor has been successful in getting the city to reverse its approval of Mr. Cherry’s permit. The house passed its building inspections and is 85 percent complete, yet sits empty, its future dependent on who finally wins a legal battle that never should have been allowed to happen.
Gail Wiesner, who lives across the street from Mr. Cherry — not incidentally, in a house built in 2008 — doesn’t like it in her neighborhood. In her appeal, she complained not only that the house was too modern for the area’s historical character, but also that the impact of its completion posed a threat to the community. Testifying to the Raleigh City Council, Ms. Wiesner argued that past attempts to engage in similar stylistic treachery had been made by architects who had been “churned out from a very modernist school,” and like to “show off their abilities.”
For the most part, these rebels have been prevented from building homes like this one, she continued in her public comments, but thanks only to “scrupulous, agonizing” processes.
Over a period of about four months Ms. Wiesner filed a series of appeals to the Board of Adjustment to reverse the ruling with the intent of halting construction.
A small group of Oakwood neighbors, who call themselves the Oak City Preservation Alliance, rallied to the cause. The actions of Ms. Wiesner and her allies have created “such a weird hysteria in the neighborhood,” Mr. Cherry told me. “Words like ‘holocaust’ have been used in reference to the idea that our house could inspire a rash of tear-downs which could then be replaced with modern homes. I designed my house specifically within the design guidelines of this historic district and to be compatible, a good neighbor. But the term ‘modernism’ just clicks a switch in people’s brain and they can’t see the house for what it is.”
Does this construction decrease property values?
Ms. Wiesner, who works in real estate, has also argued that having a modern house on the block will adversely affect the resale value of her own home. Here, too, Mr. Howard begs to differ: “The Cherry house doesn’t bring her property value down; in fact, it probably has a more positive affect on the neighborhood than Wiesner’s. Her house is two-thirds bungalow and one-third Victorian cottage. This is like putting strawberries and broccoli in the blender together. I love strawberries and I love broccoli, but not together.”
Those who support the construction of the house are those dastardly “libertarians.”
Some of the staunchest supporters of the Cherry-Gordon house are, says Mr. Cherry, “people who believe in property rights and are sort of libertarian.” However, those live-and-let-live types feel as if they’re in a minority. Increasingly, it seems, building a house that doesn’t fit in with your neighbor’s vision of home has become grounds for legal action, often in places emblematic of the American dream, like historic districts and gated communities.