Battle is brewing over big homes, small lots


On one side of the fence is Al Benkert, a longtime Central Beach resident who lives in a 44-year-old, one-story, 2,200-square-foot home on the Silver Shores waterfront.

On the other side is Drew Bottalico, who grew up in Vero Beach and now, along with his wife, is building what he describes as their “forever home” – a two-story, 3,000-square foot, Bermuda-style house.

Bottalico says the home they are building next door to Benkert – a design they love that they found while visiting Alys Beach, a luxury gulf-side community – will comfortably accommodate their two young children and maximize the value of his waterfront property.

Benkert describes it as a “monstrosity that will destroy the charm and beauty of the neighborhood.”

Neither Bottalico nor Benkert is doing anything wrong.

On the one hand: Having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy a lot, shouldn’t the Bottalicos be able to build their family’s dream house, as long as they stay within the city’s code?

But on the other hand, would you want to live next door to a 22-foot-high wall that is actually higher because of the additional fill needed to build up the base to put the home’s foundation above the flood line?

With second-floor windows only 10-feet from your property line overlooking your backyard and swimming pool?

And don’t forget the roof line, which makes the neighboring house look even bigger.

Both Benkert and Bottalico agree we’re likely to see more of this type of new construction in Vero Beach’s older neighborhoods, particularly in the Central Beach area, where smaller, outdated homes are being purchased, knocked down and replaced by larger houses.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Benkert said. “That’s why I feel the need to do something.”

So now, Benkert said he’s launching a campaign to amend the single-family residential zoning restrictions in Vero Beach’s building code to protect and preserve “Old Vero,” smaller-lot neighborhoods similar to his.

Bottalico, who grew up in Vero Beach, is empathetic.

“I completely understand where Al is coming from,” Bottalico said. “That lot was vacant for a long time. Now he’s losing his privacy. But I wouldn’t have been able to build this house if it was not to code.

“Besides, if it wasn’t me, it would’ve been someone else,” he added. “The landscape is changing in Vero. My house is one of the first of its size in that area, but they’re doing similar-type construction in other places on the beach.”

He mentioned new homes – or houses under construction – on Holly, Indian Lilac and Live Oak roads, as well as on Conn Way.

Just as Bottalico appreciates his soon-to-be neighbor’s concerns, Benkert understands why Bottalico and others who pay top dollar for property want to build high-end homes.

In fact, Vero Beach Planning Director Jason Jeffries said he regularly hears from people on both sides of the issue.

“Al represents residents who want to preserve the feel of the older neighborhoods and don’t want a big house built next door,” Jeffries said, “but I’ve got people who complain that our code is too restrictive because they can’t build as large a house as they want to.

“Builders say they’re building the types of homes people want,” he added. “A lot of professional people are moving to Vero Beach with their families, and they don’t want to raise a family in a three-bedroom, two-bath, 2,000-square-foot home.

“They want to build a family-size home similar in size to what they left behind.”

Or as local real estate attorney Barry Segal put it: “There’s a demand to build bigger because affluent people want larger homes with room for their kids and grandkids.

“And it’s not just newcomers,” he added. “A lot of longtime residents here reach a point where they want and can afford a new, larger home.”

The zoning in Silver Shores and many of the city’s older neighborhoods requires only 10-foot setbacks and limits the floor area ratio (FAR) – the measurement of a building’s floor area in relation to the size of the lot – to 38 percent.

However, Segal said some property owners get around the ratios, which apply to only the air-conditioned square footage, by opting to build homes with carports instead of garages.

Bottalico, who admits his home “looks bigger than it is,” said he was among those who sacrificed garage space to stay within the ratio. His design includes only a one-car garage and a carport.

There is a problem, however: Enclosed garages are not only safer than carports, particularly during Florida’s summer storms, but they’re also usually aesthetically more appealing.

“I’d rather live next door to a house with a garage,” Segal said, adding that the city might want to consider removing garages from the ratio.

Benkert would like to see the city increase the setbacks for larger homes on smaller lots – especially for second floors, as he said builders often do in the Central Beach area.

He said the wall created by Bottalico’s design wouldn’t be so imposing if the second floor were set back 20 feet from the property line. Doing so, however, would noticeably reduce the home’s square footage.

Benkert said he already has spent nearly $5,000 on palm trees to block the first-floor view from Bottalico’s house and “mitigate” what he called an “intrusion” that has reduced his home value by as much as $200,000.

“If I wanted to sell,” Benkert said, “there are people who would walk into my backyard, see that house and walk out.”

Jeffries said there’s nothing the city can do unless Benkert is successful in rallying residents to his cause and the code is amended. He said Bottalico’s house has been through the site-plan review process and, thus far, is being built to meet the code’s requirements.

As for other older neighborhoods where residents might want to prevent an influx of larger homes, Jeffries said it’s possible to for the city to establish “conservation, preservation, historic or special purpose” districts – if enough of the homeowners join the movement.

“It would be a neighborhood-by-neighborhood thing, but it has been done in some communities,” he said. “It might be tougher to do now, because they’ve waited too long to do it.”

Bottalico makes no apologies.

“What we’re building is different,” he said. “It’s big, it’s bold and it’s beautiful. And when it’s done, I think it will increase property values in the neighborhood.”

For better or worse, Bottalico will show his neighbors – and future Silver Shores buyers – how much house can be built on a .20-acre lot.

“The demand is only going to increase,” Segal said. “Al’s house is not the perfect house for everyone.”

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