Government & Politics

Teardowns have divided Prairie Village. Now residents have a chance to weigh in

Prairie Village is one step closer to guidelines that leaders hope will help blend new large homes more compatibly into existing neighborhoods, preserving the small-town charm that people love about the city.

The City Council endorsed a preliminary set of guidelines Monday night and is ready to seek input from residents on the contentious issue of teardowns and new home rebuilds.

The guidelines would place restrictions on how oversized a house can look and how much land it can consume, plus add some rules for trees, driveways, garages and other aspects of residential development.

The city expects to hold at least three public forums, probably in July, with the dates to be announced later. If a community consensus emerges, the council hopes to vote by late September so new homes fit in better with existing 1950s-era Cape Cod and ranch homes with small lots.

Mayor Laura Wassmer praised the preliminary guidelines, which grew out of seven months of work by a committee of professional architects. She said the city has had excellent input from builders and designers. Now, she said, it’s time to get feedback from residents, to address how to deal with the changing character and modernization of the city’s housing stock.

“I think there are houses that have been built in Prairie Village that people point to and say, ‘Yeah, that’s good. That fits,’" Wassmer said. "And then there are other houses that people point to and say, ‘No, that doesn’t fit.’ We constantly hear about some of those that people feel are too big.”

A recent survey of about 700 Prairie Village households revealed how divided residents are on the topic, one of the most pressing issues confronting the city. It’s a phenomenon also affecting Fairway, old Leawood and other northern Johnson County communities, where friction has emerged pitting longtime residents against young families wanting to update older homes in areas with good schools and proximity to Kansas City.

Fifty-two percent of Prairie Village residents surveyed said they were concerned about the teardowns and rebuilds that have affected nearly 100 properties since 2015. The other 48 percent of respondents said they weren’t concerned.

The survey also collected 568 comments about the issue, including 189 comments about the large home sizes, 178 about the effect on neighborhood character and 103 raising concerns the new, significantly more expensive homes are adversely affecting affordability in Prairie Village.

Ward 1 Councilwoman Jori Nelson said the teardown phenomenon is profoundly affecting her constituents in neighborhoods with small lot sizes. She thought more than 52 percent of residents in her ward are worried.

“When we have residents coming up and addressing concerns about the mass and the density and the size of these homes, the majority are coming from Ward 1,” she said. “I don’t know that their voices were heard on that survey.”

In June 2016, the Prairie Village council agreed to lower 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 Wassmer said that didn’t go far enough for many residents.

The proposed guidelines would require that 60 or 65 percent of the land in lots under 10,000 square feet consist of green space, to ensure adequate drainage and privacy. The committee had recommended 60 percent, but council members suggested that should be increased to 65 percent. Residents will be asked their preference. Larger lots would require 70 percent green space.

Currently, there's no green space requirement.

Melissa Prenger, project manager with the Prairie Village public works department, said most older Prairie Village lots currently have 65 to 75 percent green space, or grassy and landscaped surface, while the actual homes consume about 25 to 35 percent of the land.

She said many of the newer homes that have already been built would comply with the proposed restrictions. But some have "a lot of hard surface" and would not have been approved under the proposed guidelines.

“Green space is needed to allow for appropriate grading on the site,” Prenger told the council. She said neighbors want sufficient space so houses don't crowd each other and so water doesn’t flood adjacent properties or basements.

Chris Brewster, a Gould Evans plan consultant who has advised the city for several years on the teardowns issue, said other guidelines would require architectural details such as windows to avoid large unbroken walls, some modest limits on driveways and garages, and sufficient trees to preserve Prairie Village's great shade canopy.

Wassmer said she has seen some huge, gorgeous trees cut down for new homes and she would like the public to weigh in on that topic, too.

Some city administrators had expected a crowd for Monday night’s discussion, but no one from the public showed up to speak on the issue. Assistant City Administrator Jamie Robichaud said she thought most residents knew there would be future public forums where they will be able to share their thoughts.

One Prairie Hills Homes Association resident, Loring Leifer, listened to the discussion and said afterward that she appreciated the recommendations.

“I am not inherently opposed to teardowns. I think that people’s needs have changed,” she said.

She agreed the city needs to set some standards for setbacks from the street and green space but said she didn’t want onerous restrictions on architectural styles, innovation and creative designs.

“I don’t think necessarily that all houses should look exactly alike,” she said. ”I think if you maintain a harmonious streetscape, that will leave room for great variation in design.”