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Brighton tension: is bigger better? 

Close proximity to downtown, charming neighborhoods, good schools: Brighton is the kind of community that real estate agents love to hate. It's red-hot popular with buyers but short on inventory, especially when it comes to big houses.

And a Rochester-area developer has set off a tense discussion over neighborhood character and property rights. Michael Millner of MGM Homes has been buying houses in Brighton, demolishing them, and building larger ones on the same lots. That has alarmed some residents, who say they're afraid the trend will ruin the character of Brighton's mature neighborhoods.

Reacting to comments from residents in the Home Acres and Clover Hills neighborhoods, the Brighton Town Board placed a six-month moratorium on demolitions. That moratorium expires in August. Meantime, town officials are considering ways to deal with the issue.

At a May 2 public meeting, Brighton town planner Ramsey Boehner and Brighton Councilmember James Vogel presented a draft of new legislation that would set up a review process for proposed demolitions. The legislation would require public notification for all plans to fully demolish a house. In addition, property owners or developers would have to get approval from Brighton's Architectural Commission and Historical Commission --- not only for the demolition but also for the building that would replace the house. The replacement plan would have to be approved at the same time as the demolition.

The word often used for these replacement houses is "McMansions," but that implies grandiose, obscenely large houses on small lots. That kind of development has happened in suburban Chicago and other areas. Fewer than a dozen houses have been demolished in Brighton since 2000, however, and none have been replaced by oversized mansions. And Boehner says that during the public meeting, he avoided using the word "McMansions" deliberately, "because we're really talking about large-scale houses being built on small-scale lots, not mansions."

But Boehner says residents are concerned about the size and scale of new structures. "It is not just a matter of square footage," he says. "If the setbacks are such that they allow buildings to come closer to the street or to the neighbor next door, but most of the existing homes are set back quite a bit, you can see what a dramatic change that would mean."

"And don't forget what adding another 10 feet in height could mean," he says. "If you are next door to that, you're talking about a very different property. That's why some people want to see the zoning reviewed, too."

And, he says, there are other concerns. The town wants to be sure that homes with historic value, including those without landmark status, have been reviewed before being torn down, he says. And engineering issues come into play when a larger property occupies a smaller lot.

"You start to get drainage issues," he says. "Where is all that water going to go, now that it is covered over with a building? It could end up next door in the neighbor's yard where it was once dry," he says.

Eastland Avenue resident Sheldon Shapiro, who supports the moratorium, notes that when he was enlarging his kitchen, he needed the town's approval. "It seems like we should be that much more concerned about demolishing a whole house," he says.

And, he adds, "if you're going to take a structure down, maybe you should be required to have a letter of credit or something that shows that you can replace it with something consistent. Otherwise we could have an empty lot there, and that invites its own set of problems."

Babcock Drive resident Jeffrey Johnstone wants the town to study Pittsford's regulations on the demolition of houses more than 50 years old. "They are not necessarily historic homes," he says. "But these individual homes create the historic character of a neighborhood."

Developer Michael Millner, who sparked the controversy, says he has enhanced the neighborhoods where he has demolished older houses and built new ones. They include properties at 91 Clover Hills Drive, 154 Clover Hills Drive, 1425 Clover Street, and 465 Warren Avenue. Demolitions he planned at 11 Babcock Drive and 32 Southern Parkway are on hold because of the moratorium.

"I've been building in Brighton for years," Millner says, "and if you look at the properties I built, whether they were empty lots that I built out or demolitions that I rebuilt on, I've tried to build something consistent with the neighborhood. I may have taken down a property that is 1,500 square feet and replaced it with something that is, let's say, 3,200 square feet, but there are other large properties already there similar to it. These are beautiful properties that people want; there is a demand for them. People move here from San Francisco, DC, and Boston. They are working professionals new to the area, and they want to live in Brighton, but they don't want to spend two years trying to remodel an old home."

Realtor Bob Miglioratti, who chairs the board of the Greater Rochester Association of Realtors, says Brighton should "be cautious about overreaching."

"Brighton really does have a serious shortage of space for new builds," he says. "The town is already about 94 percent built out. On some streets between Highland and Elmwood Avenue, we're talking about small 1,400 square foot, one-bath houses --- and many of them don't even have basements. So, yes, there definitely is a market for people who want to live in Brighton in newer 4,000-square-foot properties with four bedrooms and three baths."

Miglioratti also says the town shouldn't be short-sighted when it comes to taxes.

"We're looking at properties with values that top out at $160,000 to $170,000 and taxes of about $6,000 to $7,000 and replacing them with houses that are going to generate between $20,000 and $25,000 in taxes. It's a windfall. And there is absolutely no evidence that I know of that indicates this reduces property values. If anything, it's the exact opposite."

Brighton Town Supervisor Sandy Frankel says neither the town nor the people favoring the moratorium want to halt new home construction. And she says this is not about government interference.

"The laws and regulations are always subject to change and should be viewed as living documents," she says. "The moratorium was generated by the public and the Brighton Historic Preservation Board. We want people to have the right to use their properties as they wish, but in a way that also balances and respects the rights of individual property owners and their neighbors. And I'm sure we can do that."

The moratorium on demolitions, which began in February, will end on August 15 unless it is extended. A public hearing on a new demolition law is scheduled for July 12.

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