The incredible shrinking American yard

small-lawnThey called it “unimaginable,” “appalling,” and “a blight on the neighborhood.” “I hope you’ve taken the time to drive by it,” neighbor Michelle McCarthy told the board. Yale Street, she explained, looks almost like a park. “With beautiful houses set back. And then, when you come to this property, it’s all paved.”

Some neighbors focused on safety. What if a child got hit by one of Scott Nguyen’s cars – or commercial trucks from his flooring business – backing out of his second driveway? And they fretted, too, about money. “If we’re going to allow this,” next-door neighbor Sven Andersen complained, “it’s definitely changing the values of all the property in this town.”

But mostly they worried about the lawn – or the lack of it – and what that said about them and the character of the neighborhood they call home. “If you let it get eaten away by little pieces,” one woman testified, “then we’re not living in our beautiful Winchester anymore.”

Months earlier, shortly after buying the home, Nguyen had mingled with these very same neighbors at the Yale Street block party, shaking hands, making introductions, and sharing food. The Nguyens, who like to entertain, had prepared about 100 Vietnamese spring rolls for the affair. There were smiles all around. But now it was beyond awkward for everyone. “I’m actually sad,” one driveway opponent said at the December hearing. “Very sad,” agreed another.

But not as sad, perhaps, as Scott Nguyen, by the time the hearing came to a close. He had put in the second driveway to make it easier for his wife and live-in father-in-law to park their cars. Now the zoning board had declared the driveway a parking lot – and an ugly one at that. The paved yard “adversely affects the neighborhood’s streetscape,” the board determined and called for its removal.

Nguyen promptly sued the board in Middlesex Superior Court, asking a judge to nullify the decision. After all, he got the OK from two different Winchester departments – the building commissioner and an official in public works – before going forward with his double-driveway plan. Even the town planner, Brian Szekely, saw no way to stop it. “I fully believe the paving of the front yard should not occur,” he said in a memo last fall. But in recommending that the zoning board deny the neighbors’ claims, Szekely added, “there is little that can be done to prevent the pavers from being installed.”

“It’s well within my rights,” Nguyen, now awaiting a court decision expected later this year, tells me. “I got permission to do this. The bylaws of the town say I can do this. So who are these neighbors to come into my own personal, private activities and say I can’t do this?”

It’s just one driveway. Just one yard. In the end, the folks on Yale Street have picked a fight over about 600 square feet of rather expensive stone pavers. But it’s also about far more than just that. In the era of the great American shrinking yard – where little Capes are getting torn down in affluent Boston suburbs and giant fortresses are going up in their place, where lawn is being plowed over for patios, and backyards are being consumed by master-bedroom additions – every blade of grass is suddenly more important or more expendable, and, either way, cause for a fight. Savvy developers sacrifice the outdoor green space people once treasured, forsaking yards to make room for modern amenities like mother-in-law suites, media rooms, and three-car garages, and buyers line up to outbid one another for the finished product. No yard? No problem. And the neighbors watch, stunned and angry. That yard next door? Those trees? That grass? It feels like theirs, for keeps.

“This is a battle between people all the time,” says John A. Wile, the Winchester building commissioner. “They don’t like what the other person has got – and blah, blah, blah. I turn off the switch at four o’clock, the light switch. I don’t listen to complaints anymore after that.”

THE YARD – ONCE THE BIRTHRIGHT of suburban American families with two kids, a dog, and a station wagon – is more endangered than ever. According to US Census data, the size of new American homes has been climbing steadily for the past 15 years – up about 21 percent, to more than 2,500 square feet of indoor living space. At the same time, the size of the outdoor space has been decreasing, especially since the Great Recession. The typical lot of a new home sold in this country is about 400 square feet smaller today than it was just five years ago. The same trend is playing out here in the Northeast, according to the Census figures. In the past five years, the size of new homes in this region is up about 10 percent, while the size of lots is down nearly 20 percent.

“Builders are increasingly trying to put more house on roughly the same amount of lot,” says Aaron Terrazas, a senior economist with Zillow, the real estate website. One reason, he says, might be the rising cost of undeveloped land, which is especially rare and expensive in Greater Boston. In order for developers to make their investment worthwhile, they need to maximize their financial return. “You can either sell more homes on that lot or you can build high-end luxury homes,” Terrazas says. “I think builders are pursuing both strategies.”

In our suburbs, it’s the latter that’s changing the landscape, often quite literally. From Bedford to Newton, Wellesley to Lexington, developers are scooping up tired old Capes, Dutch Colonials, and Gambrels built in the 1930s or 1950s for smaller people in a smaller time. They’re then leveling the 2,000-square-foot homes and replacing them with giant structures that can be at least three times as big as the original. The result is friction, privacy complaints, drainage problems, architectural beefs – who wants the mega-mansion next door? – and an often overlooked issue: persistently smaller yards. “Any time you get a teardown you get a shrinking yard because you’ve got a much bigger house than the original,” says Glenn Garber, who recently retired as Bedford planning director. “It’s the looming effect. Architects and planners call it bulk and massing.”

Neighbors often call it something else: annoying. On one street in Needham, where a 5,000-square-foot house recently replaced a small ranch, residents had questions from the start. “Are they putting a two-family up? What is that?” one neighbor recalls thinking. “The joke was Is that a Ramada Inn?” But there was nothing they could do to stop it from blocking out the light, the view. “It wasn’t the most beautiful vista before,” says the neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to offend the new owner. “But the old house sat more toward the left of the property. So we used to look out on the grass and then on the street beyond. Now,” she says, “we look at a wall.”

For decades now, teardown battles have ripped neighborhoods apart, forcing communities to pass new regulations to control growth. But the latest raft of bylaws is focused on a new angle: preserving green space. Last November, Bedford required that most future teardowns receive a special permit. One goal, the town declared, was “preventing overcrowding of land.” This spring, Concord established acceptable home-to-lot ratios in order to control projects deemed “out of scale.” And Winchester, reacting in part to the controversy over the Nguyens’ home, passed new bylaws of its own. The first requires site plan reviews when a new home proposal reaches a certain size. The second requires that residential lots have at least 35 percent green space – and no more than 35 percent hardscape like driveways and patios. In the suburbs, town governments are trying to save the yard.

On a recent morning, developer David Bernstein sits behind the wheel of his pickup truck, taking me on what shapes up to be a teardown tour of Bedford. “This one right here was mine,” he says as we cruise the tree-lined streets. “We built that last fall . . . . That one was a teardown . . . . The house was obsolete, built in the 1950s. Just tired.” As we drive, he can’t help but notice future teardown possibilities all around him. “That’s probably a candidate,” he says, making a mental note of one sagging ranch that he expects could come up for sale soon. “It’s not too far away.”

His company, Bernstein Development, focuses on buying and razing old homes, hauling away the debris of the past, and building the home of the future: typically around 4,500 square feet, with gourmet kitchens, walk-in closets, master baths the size of bedrooms, and sprawling patios with fire pits and hard-wired gas lines ready for that barbecue. “The market tells us what to build,” he says. “What do people like? Don’t like? And what the market is telling me is they want more house. They’re looking for more square footage. They don’t care as much about the yard.”

One possible reason: We’re increasingly becoming indoor creatures. Writing in the American Journal of Play in recent years, Boston College professor Peter Gray argued that over the past half century “opportunities to play outdoors, especially with other children, have continually declined.” At times, that’s because parents, worried about predators and other dangers, have restricted it. Other times, children are overscheduled, too busy for free play or consumed doing other things. According to a 2013 study from the nonprofit Common Sense Media, the average child age 5 to 8 spent two hours and 16 minutes a day in front of some sort of screen. And such changes make yards less valuable. Suzanne Koller, a real estate broker in Bedford, says most people would much rather have a three-car garage, a home gym, or be able to walk to Whole Foods than have space to play Wiffle ball outside with their kids.

“A lot of people, they both work,” Koller says. “They don’t have the time or the energy or the money to upkeep the yard,” she says. “So it’s kind of like the American dream has changed.”

“When I was a kid,” she adds, “people wanted to move to a cul-de-sac. And your dad would get a riding lawnmower. That was what it was all about. Now you pay somebody to take care of your yard, you want a smaller yard, and you want to be closer to town.”

Brendan Leyne and Rob Shannon – co-owners of Leyne & Shannon building contractors – are banking on this shift. In February 2015, the developers set their sights on buying a small 1951 ranch on a 17,860-square-foot corner lot nestled amid a thicket of trees on Hayes Avenue in Lexington. It was, in Leyne’s estimation, “a perfectly good house – it was definitely livable.” But with an asking price of $895,000, this was a deal ready-made for developers. And in they came. “Inevitably, it’s us and five other builders bidding on these properties,” Leyne says. “It’s becoming a feeding frenzy. And the end result is, it pushes the price up.”

Within five days, the listing agent for the ranch had multiple offers – and a winning bid from Leyne & Shannon of $1.158 million, 30 percent above the asking price. About six months later, the developers leveled it and began making plans for a statement house: 8,200 square feet of pure suburban luxury.

“This is supposed to be the wow factor,” Leyne tells me, stepping into the foyer of the home, still under construction, with a soaring 19-foot ceiling. The dining room, to the right, is framed in mahogany. The cost for that in labor and materials: $28,500. The kitchen up ahead features custom inset cabinets. Cost: $60,000. There’s a bar in the basement ($14,000) and a wine cellar nearby ($25,000) capable of storing 660 bottles. They decided to go big on the garage, too. “We’re not going to take any chances with a three-car garage,” Leyne says. “It’s kind of like 11 – our garage goes to 11. We have four cars.”

We make our way around the house – four stories in all – and then step back outside. There’s still a yard; the two developers made sure to preserve some old trees out front and a nice, flat swath of grass there, too. But the new house has roughly twice the footprint of the old one, and, if you feel the impact, it’s out back, where the yard in places is only about 18 feet wide. “It’s more of pass-through,” Leyne concedes.

But neither developer worries about that. They’ve created a nice patio and planted a row of 15 mature arborvitaes ($13,500) to offer some privacy from the neighbors. They figure the previous owners hadn’t used the backyard very often. And now, even with the patio and the trees, they don’t expect that to change.

“Backyards are kind of like Jacuzzis in the master bath,” Shannon says. “Everybody wants a Jacuzzi in the master bath. But they may use it once a year. When push comes to shove, people don’t even use the backyard.”

FROM THEIR HOME ON YALE STREET, Scott and Quyen Nguyen peer through the windows at their own backyard. They’re making plans. It’s June, and they haven’t yet moved in their furniture and other belongings. Contractors are still at work outside. And the backyard is just dirt – grass seed is supposed to come soon. But as one daughter watches cartoons on a television already mounted in the living room, the couple are beginning to imagine their new lives inside the house with the “parking lot” outside. “This is incredible,” Quyen says. “We’re happy.”

Both of them escaped Vietnam as children, more than 30 years ago, fleeing with their families on boats, bound for the unknown. The fact that they made it to this country, went to college in Boston – Scott at Northeastern, Quyen at Boston University – graduated, and worked hard enough to be able to buy a million-dollar home in Winchester still, at times, seems unimaginable to them. “It is,” Scott says with a smile, “our American dream.”

But then his smile fades, washed away by more recent memories – of the zoning board meeting, and the comments people made, and the anger he feels up and down Yale Street and beyond. Maybe it will get better with time – after the judge rules, whatever the decision. Maybe one day he’ll get along with his neighbors, like he did not too long ago. Yet it’s hard to imagine now. “I don’t feel the same,” he says. “I may need to replicate this somewhere else, where there’s more land and more privacy.”

Until that time comes, if it does, the neighbors are watching. Jane Murray lives on the next street over, directly behind the Nguyens. The 67-year-old has been there since 1976, raised three children in her home, and used to love sitting out back on her screened-in porch looking at the old house that was there – “It was a charming Craftsman-style home” – and the large tree that used to stand in the backyard. “A year ago, October, I came home from a holiday and they were cutting the tree down,” she says. “I cried for three days. And then – you couldn’t tell what they were doing at first – they started taking the old house apart.”

Now what Murray notices most is the glaring security light – “It goes off about every 20 seconds” – and the workers who are always there. And she knows that no matter how the court rules on the Nguyens’ parking area, she won’t win. “It doesn’t save what I’ve lost,” she says.

But every once in a while Murray is reminded why she moved to Winchester in the first place: the chickadees fluttering by her bird feeders, the rabbits in the grass, and, not so long ago, a fox passing through her backyard. It was a young fox, an adolescent, Murray believes, appearing one morning in broad daylight. She spied it through the kitchen window and followed it as it scampered down her driveway, skipped through her front yard, then hustled along Oxford Street, a fox on the move. “I thought it was wonderful,” she says. She couldn’t help but feel excited. There was still room for something wild in Winchester.