In the wake of controversial parking ordinances proposed for Walton County, I offered “Principles of a Sensible County Parking Policy” in the January/February 2014 issue of The Seaside Times. Now I’m following up on that with ways to address the issue at the heart of one proposed parking ordinance: “monster homes” in South Walton.
In recent years, local residents have noticed the construction of more and more monster homes. While there is no consensus definition for what constitutes a monster home, I would define it as a house that significantly exceeds the size of typical houses in a given neighborhood. In the context of our 30A beach communities, that’s a house that has roughly six or more bedrooms and a height of at least three stories. The houses are typically boxy and bulky, as they fill every square foot of the buildable envelope of a lot.
Houses are built this large for a reason: they are vacation rentals, and the high occupancy of these houses is very appealing for families, multiple families, or groups. The owners of these houses — many of whom do not live in the area — are essentially operating mini-hotels, and presumably for a nice profit. You might call it “Monsters, Inc.”
In a quick search on VRBO.com, I found eight houses in my Old Seagrove neighborhood ranging from six to 10 bedrooms, and sleeping between 14 and 24 people. That’s only one website, and doesn’t include all properties from all rental agencies. I’m not sure why anyone wants to stay in a house with 24 people, but it’s clearly quite popular.
This phenomenon is generally limited to areas within a short distance of the beach, and only in communities such as Seagrove Beach, Seacrest Beach, and Dune Allen — all of which fall under standard county regulations for building height, parking, etc. (Planned communities such as Seaside have their own set of rules, and some neighborhoods — such as Blue Mountain Beach — have created their own “Neighborhood Plans” that tweak the standard rules but are otherwise very limited.)
These houses often do not have enough parking within the property for the high number of occupants. The county requires a certain number of parking spaces per bedroom, but people skirt this rule by converting “dens” and “offices” to bunk rooms after getting a permit. Without enough spaces, parked cars end up in the right-of-way, which sometimes irks neighbors.
Critics point to the parking issue as one of several nuisances created by monster homes. They also cite noise and trash generated by large tenant groups and the damage to the character of their neighborhood, among other complaints. As a year-round resident, I agree that monster homes — and the huge groups that temporarily inhabit them — can be a nuisance at times. And even though I’m skeptical of the scope of this problem and critical of some proposed solutions, I fully admit that I’d rather not live next to a monster home that’s a short-term rental.
As I explained in my previous column, parking requirements are the wrong tools to solve these problems. People will continue to build monster homes, but they will just chop down more trees and pave over more land to fit all of the parking. The heart of the problem is the high occupancy of these houses, which is largely a function of square footage and number of bedrooms.
The standard tools for limiting the size of houses include height limits and a density calculation called floor area ratio, or FAR. The latter limits the amount of total square footage in proportion to the lot size (calculate it by dividing the total square footage of a house by the total square footage of the lot). For example, a maximum FAR of .5 on a 50’ x 100’ lot would yield no more than a 2,500-square-foot house. To build any larger than that, one would need to purchase more land.
Similar to parking regulations, these tools should never be used as a one-size-fits-all solution. Height and density should be determined on a street-by-street basis, and sometimes even house-by-house. Great placemaking requires a much more nuanced and fine-grained approach than blanket regulations. That’s a lesson of these monster homes: what’s appropriate in one area isn’t always appropriate in another. Finding the right place for such homes requires a detailed master plan for each neighborhood.
People have been building extra large vacation rental houses in this area for many years. There is huge demand for large houses, and vacation rentals in general are an important part of our local economy. We shouldn’t dismiss those facts. Before we change the rules, the county should study the issue. We can’t solve a problem that we don’t fully understand.
But the sense of unease over these houses is a sign of something larger: people no longer see South Walton exclusively as a place to visit — they also see it as a place to live. This won’t be the last battle between year-round residents and the tourism industry. But, with any luck, it could be the beginning of a more thoughtful approach to planning in Walton County. We need to plan for a future in a way that balances these interests and creates great places.
Mark Schnell is an urban designer based in Seagrove Beach. His firm Schnell Urban Design (schnellurbandesign.com) offers a wide range of services, from designs for entire communities to parks to houses. He also offers walking tours of Seaside by appointment. To schedule a tour, contact Mark at (850) 419-2397 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Tours cost $20 per person (cash only) and last approximately two hours. Tours are given in conjunction with the Seaside Institute.