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McMansion? Not in Our Backyards

Local Matters


Published September 19, 2006 at 6:10 p.m.

BURLINGTON - In the suburbs of cities such as Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Los Angeles, luxury houses of 4000 square feet or more have become increasingly common, with smaller single-family homes being routinely razed to make way for bigger constructions. But "McMansions" are not welcome here, say residents of Burlington's prestigious South Cove neighborhood.

Several South Cove homeowners objected recently when Gary and Krystyna Kaminsky of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, made plans to demolish their 2800-square-foot house at 125 South Cove Road and replace it with a 7600-square-foot structure. The new home would have been the second-largest single-family residence in Burlington; the largest, Amy Tarrant's historic 13,600-square-foot abode, sits on 17.6 acres near the Burlington Country Club.

The neighbors complained to Burlington's Design Advisory Board that putting such a large building on the Kaminskys' .71-acre waterfront lot would dramatically change the character of their neighborhood. After two meetings concerning the project, the DAB agreed with them and denied the application - but not before the fight got ugly. At the DAB meeting, neighbors repeatedly derided the Kaminskys' proposed house as "ostentatious" and "offensive." The week before, the Kaminskys had even called the Burlington Police Department to keep one irate man from setting foot on their property.

South Cove resident Kathy Roberts is not surprised by the emotional debate. "You have people here who passionately, passionately love where they live," she explains. "It's not a trophy-home type of neighborhood. And that's what we see happening. It's threatening."

Last year, Roberts protested the construction of a tall, industrial-looking waterfront house at nearby 33 Eastman Way; the house went up anyway. She felt then as if the city "didn't want to hear it."

"You have a neighborhood here that feels they weren't heard and weren't listened to," she says of the Eastman Way construction. "And so, in walked the Kaminskys."

The Kaminskys claim they're not out to attack anyone - they just want to build a retirement home. Gary Kaminsky, a 65-year-old principal in a real estate firm that owns shopping centers and office buildings, says he and his wife bought a house in South Hero several years ago and fell in love with Vermont. They sold that property and bought the one on South Cove in 2004. They've visited occasionally ever since, and plan to retire here full time.

At the DAB meeting, Krystyna Kaminsky insisted that the couple's current house, which is only a couple of decades old, has a mildew problem and wasps in the walls. She characterized it as "extremely unlivable." Rather than pour money into renovating the structure, she and her husband want to start over.

The plans they originally brought to the DAB indicated a house with three stories, two, two-car garages, and an in-ground pool facing the lake. "Truthfully," says Gary Kaminsky, "the house that we had planned to build I thought was very much commensurate with the one two doors away from us." He's referring to a 6767-square-foot house at 99 South Cove Road, completed earlier this year.

And Kaminsky correctly observes that his house met the quantitative guidelines set forth in the city's zoning regulations. "From what we were told," he says, "we need to be less than 35 feet high, and have less than 35-percent lot coverage. And both of those conditions were met."

Bill Stuono, who lives across the street from the Kaminskys, points out that the city's ordinance also discourages new constructions that would alter the character of the neighborhood. Stuono admits that there are already large homes in the South Cove area, which encompasses South Cove Road, Austin Drive, Dunder Road, Eastman Way and Oakledge. And the neighborhood is home to some well-heeled residents; former Vermont Governor Howard Dean lives here, for example.

But Stuono did some digging after the Kaminskys unveiled their plan, and found that the average house size in the neighborhood is just 2600 square feet, with a dozen houses under 2000 square feet, including a 988-square-foot colonial two doors down from the Kaminskys, and Stuono's own 1875-square-footer.

Stuono says the smaller houses allow an "interesting mix" of people to live here, including young families, which gives the neighborhood a tight-knit, community feel. Stuono argues that a house the size of the Kaminskys' would set a precedent, raising the bar for other builders, and pricing out everyone but the super-rich.

Residents of this neighborhood pay some of the highest property taxes in the city, but in many cases, their views are worth more than their homes - the waterfront house at 147 South Cove Road, for example, was last assessed at just $127,900, while the land value is more than $675,000.

Newer, bigger homes are assessed much higher. 99 South Cove, completed last year, came in at almost $1.1 million. Add another $642,700 for the land it's on, and you've got a $1.7 million property. The Kaminskys' current house is assessed at $313,200. Whatever they build will almost certainly be worth far more. That bumps up the values of neighboring houses, and, eventually, property taxes.

Stuono also asserts that Burlington's high-density, 35-percent lot-coverage rule is inappropriate here. All of the original houses on South Cove Road were governed by covenants that mandated larger setbacks than the city now requires. This has given the area a lot of green space and many expansive lawns.

The covenants expired in the 1980s, so technically, owners aren't required to abide by them - the Kaminskys' planned house didn't - but so far everyone else has. Stuono also notes that most of the neighborhood's other 4000-plus-square-foot houses sit on larger lots.

Stuono says he spoke with the Kaminskys about his concerns during the first week in September. He explained to them that he and other neighbors were worried about the size of the house.

They were unreceptive, Stuono claims. "They said things like, 'We think everybody should tear down their houses to match ours,'" Stuono charges, "and 'If you had the money to tear down your house and build this, wouldn't you?'"

He was surprised when, the next day, a police officer showed up on his doorstep to give him a trespass notification, barring him from visiting the Kaminskys' property for one year.

But Gary Kaminsky recalls that encounter differently. He claims neither he nor his wife said anything about anyone else's house; they just tried to make Stuono understand that they didn't care what he does on his property, and he shouldn't care what they do on theirs. According to Kaminsky, the conversation ended with Stuono pointing his finger and screaming at them "at the top of his lungs."

"He was saying, 'I'm going to get you, I'm going to get you, I'm going to make you the most hated person in the neighborhood,'" Kaminsky remembers. "I felt quite threatened, and I wanted to put it on record."

The episode clearly surprised the Kaminskys, as did their neighbors' vociferous opposition at the DAB meeting, and the DAB's denial of their proposal.

As a result, they've decided to downsize their house. They're scheduled to present new plans to the DAB on October 10.

Gary Kaminsky says he wants to build something that will be welcome in the South Cove neighborhood. "We don't want anybody to be upset with us," he says. "If in any way I did anything to offend anybody, I certainly would apologize profusely. The last thing in the world I want to do at this stage in my life is have any confrontation with anybody, let alone my neighbors."