Charity’s Column: A matter of proportion

While trying to make sense of recent Town Board deliberations on the size of a proposed house, I turned to Russian literature for answers.

Published in 1886, Leo Tolstoy’s very short story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need” is a parable about the moral dangers of acquisition, and the costs and the limits of human greed. It does not end well for the guy who wants more property.

In Tolstoy’s story, a greedy man agrees to pay 1,000 rubles for as much land as he can walk around, starting at sunrise of a long, hot day and returning no later than sunset to his starting point. If he’s late, he loses the land and the money. Overcome with the desire to possess, the man ranges too far, exhausts himself trying to get back in time, and dies.

The man is destroyed by his own greed, but in Tolstoy’s story it’s the local leader (wearing a fox-fur hat) and his land-acquisition rules that set the man up for a fall. For our own local officials the question is: What to do when someone asks permission to build a house that is larger than the law allows? In the recent case, the Town Board approved an application to build a 9,619-square-foot house with nine bedrooms on Little Ram Island, in spite of the Town Code limit of the size of a home to 6,000 square feet.

It’s not the first time the town has wrestled with the question of whether or not to allow someone to build an extremely large house. In the fall of 2014, the question of whether to allow an 8,297-square foot house on Charlie’s Lane resulted in a public debate, the introduction of the term “proportionality” to local parlance, and approval.

A real estate study published in 2016 showed that the average newly constructed home in the U.S. has 2,430 square feet of living space, an increase of 74 percent over the average house built a hundred years ago. Since the average household has actually dropped from 4.5 members in 1910 to 2.5 in 2015, all those small families are rattling around in 200 percent more living space these days.

Whether you’re buying, building or renting, no one goes looking for something small, and the euphemisms in real estate ads suggest that size does matter. Anything described as “charming” or “cozy” means small and cramped, and possibly in need of work.

In her recently-published memoir, Michelle Obama said her childhood home in South Side Chicago was about 900-square-feet for her family of four. A real estate professional might well describe it as cozy, but as a place to raise children, it had good results.

Our current president’s New York City apartment is said to be about 30,000 square-feet, puny in comparison to his second home, Mar-a-Lago, which has 110,000 square-feet of living area and 126 rooms. This is not a home that will ever be described as charming.

The Town Board has considered proposals for even larger new homes, including 11,615-square-feet for a proposed home overlooking — and visible from — Crescent Beach.

I suppose it never hurts to ask, but if town code requires special permission to build a house larger than 6,000 square feet, why should the answer so often be yes?

Perhaps the Town Board should wear fox-fur hats at the next vote.