Thursday, March 29, 2007

Is my house too ugly for you?

   In my property law class this week, we talked about a famous case in which the affluent suburb of Ladue, Mo. (which has been involved in more famous land use litigation that any suburb its size) told a property owner in the late 1960s that he couldn’t build his planned “modern” home because it didn’t fit with the traditional architecture of Ladue.  I chastised the decision and suggested that city officials probably thought that the house would have fit in a place such as wild and free Los Angeles, but not in conservative Ladue.

   I spoke too soon.  The current Economist magazine reports about a boom in the City of Angels of gaudy houses in non-traditional architectural styles, especially among the city’s large class of wealthy immigrants (more than 40 percent of new homes in the U.S. have four or more bedrooms today –- twice the percentage in 1985 –- which the report attributes in part to immigrant families).  There is a move to stop the construction of large, ostentatious "Persian Palaces."  One proposal is to decrease by half the square footage permitted for houses on certain size lots.  Why is it, I ask, that house of a certain size that was acceptable 20 years ago is today considered far too large? 

Brightonroyalpavilion    I also am very skeptical of land use “stylistic” laws, such as those that exist in snooty L.A. area cities such as San Marino and Beverly Hills.  Most great architectural developments, from St. Peter’s to the Eiffel Tower to the Robie House to the Guggenheim Bilbao, were derided by advocates of more traditional styles.  I don’t trust government to decide taste.  (The Economist quotes one owner as stating that if he wanted "mullahs" to tell him what to do, he could have stayed in Iran!)  And I agree with the U.S. Supreme Court, in another famous case involving Ladue, that a “special respect for individual liberty in the home has long been part of culture and our law.”  City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43, 58 (1994) (striking down a no-signs-on-lawns ordinance).  People should be able to build in the architectural style they prefer, even at the risk of decreasing neighboring property values (if it does so too much, let the neighbors sue for a “visual nuisance”).

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