South Benson house sparks debate over what is 'too big'

Some neighbors aren't rolling out the welcome wagon for a large house under construction at the corner of South Benson and Judson roads, a few streets north of Jennings Beach.

But the new house, owned by Michael DiRende, required only one variance from the town's Zoning Board of Appeals for construction to move ahead, and that variance was for the structure's setback from a street. The footprint, height and mass of the house all conform with town zoning regulations.

A few neighbors, however, express consternation over the structure's size and appearance.

Ann Bonney, who's lived on Judson Road since 1965, said that not only are neighbors troubled by the new building in their midst, but people who visit the neighborhood comment on it as well. "We certainly do have concerns for the most ugly house in Fairfield coming up on our street," she said.

"Each day they add something new and it gets uglier and uglier." Bonney said she is concerned with both the architecture and size of the house. "It takes up just about all of the room on the lot," she said.

But Edward Malasics, who lives on South Benson Road, diagonally across from the new house, said he has "no concerns" about it and that there had to be "at least 100" similarly sized houses south of the Post Road. "This town has changed. It's not a little old colonial town," Malasics said. "If he can afford to do it, he can do it. He can only increase the property values down here. He's not going to decrease them."

In a June 27 letter to the Fairfield Citizen, however, town resident Paul Brown said of the house: "Somehow, the town of Fairfield has allowed the construction of what has to be the most annoying, out of place, uncharacteristic monstrosity of a dwelling that this onetime quaint New England town has ever seen.

"If you happen to be driving down South Benson Road toward the water and make a right turn on Judson, you will encounter a wall of wood the size of a tsunami, and you will probably have to slow down from shock and disbelief."

Several online comments expressed agreement with Brown's critique, although one did not.

DiRende wasn't available to say whether he's heard feedback regarding the house.

Joseph Bienkowski, the coastal planner for the town, said about a half dozen people recently have stopped by the town's Zoning Department to inquire about the house.

Assistant Town Planner James Wendt said one reason the house at 410 South Benson Road appears so large is because the property is 16,065 square feet, much larger than the minimum required lot size of 9,375 square feet, and the maximum permitted footprint and mass of a house is based on its lot size.

"This lot is almost twice the minimum lot size. That's why you can achieve the square footage," Wendt said. The old house had a total square footage of 2,072, while the house under construction will have a total square footage of 6,293, Wendt said.

Another reason the new house appears so large is zoning regulations do not include cupolas in calculating the height of a house. "There's no limit on ornamental towers," Wendt said.

The height, footprint and mass of the house under construction are at the limit of what Fairfield's zoning regulations allow:

The regulations permit a maximum footprint, or lot coverage, of 20 percent in the A zone, where DiRende's property is located. The old house covered 9.1 percent of the property and the new house covers 19.97 percent.

The regulations permit a house's square footage to total 40 percent of the property's square footage. The old house totaled 12.9 percent, while the house under construction totals 39.17 percent.

The maximum height allowed under regulations for DiRende's house is 33 feet (32 feet plus a one-foot bonus due to flood-zone regulations). The old house was 18 feet high, while the house under construction is 32.7 feet high, not including a 10½-foot-high cupola and a proposed 4-foot-high weathervane on top of the cupola. Also, the old house was two stories, while the new house is 2½ stories.

The dimensions of the house appear most imposing along Judson Road. Bienkowski said the house is 100 feet long on Judson Road and 59 feet long on South Benson Road. At the opposite end of South Benson Road, the house is 22 feet long, he said.

As large as the house may appear, it could have been built taller in years past.

The Town Plan and Zoning Commission about five years ago amended zoning regulations in the A, B and C zones to lower the maximum permitted height of a house from 40 feet to 32 feet and to lower the maximum permitted stories from 3 to 2½ . The TPZ also decided back then that the area of an attic at least seven feet tall would contribute toward a house's overall square footage; before, the attic space had to be finished for its area to be included, Wendt said.

The more restrictive limitations were in reaction to residents who complained about people tearing down small houses and building "McMansions," or much larger ones, in their place around town.

DiRende, who bought the 410 South Benson Road property for $772,000 in June 2005, had sought a setback variance from the Zoning Board of Appeals in January 2011, but was turned down. He then changed the application so only two parts of the house encroached into the 22-foot setback and the application was approved in February 2011. Those two areas are 13½ feet from the setback, or 8½ feet closer than the regulations normally permit.

Both of DiRende's applications included a statement of support from seven neighbors, including several who live closest to the house. Neither file had a letter expressing opposition.

The larger house was designed to accommodate a bigger kitchen, a new garage, a mudroom, a larger dining room, two additional bedrooms, a laundry room and a "Jack and Jill" bathroom with raised ceiling heights, according to the application.

"After taking into consideration the recommendations made by the board members during our hearing on Jan. 6, 2011, we have modified the structure, such that the majority of the structure lies within the required 22-foot front yard setback on South Benson Road," DiRende's petition to the ZBA says. "Due to the modification, only two small sections of the structure, approximately a total of 160 square feet of footprint, lies beyond the required 22-foot front yard setback on South Benson Road."

The petition adds that the house is on an "irregularly shaped corner lot" which prohibits construction in the front yard. Without the setback variance, construction would have to take place in the backyard, which, the application states, would deprive the property owners of "significant space and use of the backyard area."