Should cities restrict the construction of “snout houses”?

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They are called “snout houses”. These are single-family homes or duplexes, typically built within the last 20 years, with the main street-side feature being the garage.

The garage of a muzzle house rises above the main body of the house, visually dominating the land. If you look down the street at a development of similarly styled houses, the view isn’t too inviting. If the land is flat and the development is devoid of mature trees – as many are these days – the area may look more like a rental-storage business than a suburban neighborhood.

That’s why cities across the country are taking steps to limit the construction of new snout homes. In Cedar Rapids, there is now talk of “forming the zoning” which would discourage snout houses in areas already zoned for residential use. Des Moines officials worked with the developers to find alternatives to the muzzle house design.

The concern is understandable. Snout houses can look gorgeous on the inside, and their design can be perfect for young families who can’t afford a more conventional home that sits on a large lot. But their exterior design emphasizes what is usually the least attractive part of a home: the garage. Grouped together, the snout houses convey the message that cars, not people, occupy the neighborhood. Consequently, such developments are less pedestrian-friendly.

But should planners and city councils enact ordinances and zoning restrictions that speak to the aesthetics of home construction?

In some ways, they already do. They require uniform setbacks, for example, and they impose limits on the design and construction of privacy fences. Some cities have banned “McMansions” through height restrictions on building new homes.

And why not? Home design impacts an entire neighborhood, not just the buyer and seller. Who wants to live next to a giant vehicle warehouse with adjoining housing?

Nearly 20 years ago, Sacramento and Portland banned nearly all snout houses. Cities have banned homes where the garage dominates the front of the structure and the main entrance is not clearly identifiable from the sidewalk or is set back more than eight feet from the front of the building.

Manufacturers oppose such restrictions, of course, and their arguments are not entirely self-serving. They point out that most families now have two vehicles, and those vehicles are much larger than before. There is no way to build a street-accessible garage to hold two or more SUVs without pushing the garage forward onto the lot so that the downstairs living space can wrap around from the back.

At the same time, city officials must be careful not to encourage urban sprawl by forcing developers to build low-density developments.

Better design of residential developments would include rear lanes, putting garages to the rear and allowing homes to be brought closer to the street. But that’s not always possible, as Cedar Rapids discovered.

No, cities shouldn’t be responsible for determining what constitutes a beautiful home. But it seems reasonable for cities to encourage residential construction where the residence — not garages, sheds, or storage units — is at the center. Cities can work with developers to create more attractive and liveable neighborhoods without prohibiting a specific housing design.

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