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Monster Houses

By Tina Traster

November 9, 2006 -- Days after I moved into a renovated old house on a rural mountain road in Rockland County, I sat at my desk working at my computer. The silent autumn day was interrupted by a high-pitched wail followed by a thud that shook my house to its core. I ran outside and noticed a plume of dust across the road. The fire marshal explained they were blasting rock with dynamite to make way for a house to be built on a sheer pitch of mountainside.

Welcome to the neighborhood.

Part of the appeal of the 1850s house we bought and revived when we left Manhattan was the road it sat on. It's a serpentine mountain pass lined with old farmhouses, funky cottages, 1960s Ranches, a church, a plot where a mosque is being built and some condo townhouses. But the once-dense thicket of forest diagonally across from our house is now a McMansion.

Despite upbeat predictions that a McMansion on any street will increase everyone's house value, I couldn't have been more disappointed.

These steroidal monstrosities are ugly and characterless. They set off a chain reaction of razing older houses and replacing them with similar eyesores. What took longer to figure out was what an environmental McHeadache this faux castle lording over the road would be.

The blasting went on for weeks. On another occasion while I was working at my desk, the power suddenly went off. I ran outside to discover that the power company working on the house across the road had shut down the system. No warning. Zap - the story I was working on disappeared like a spooked deer darting into the woods.

Later in the year, the weather took a turn for the worse. It rained and rained, and the loose earth created by the McMansion excavation sloughed down the hill. One morning, we woke to the sound of a rushing river - one that was coursing through our basement. Because the leaves, rocks and organic matter clogged storm drains near our house, water cascaded over the berm and poured through the foundation. This old house was not fit to hold back the torrent.

My husband leapt out of bed, threw on his bathrobe and ran outside to rake the choked drains. The water ebbed and we mopped the basement. The town officials were sympathetic to our calls and issued warnings to the builder who was erecting this starter castle of 4,600 square feet for himself, his wife and his tot. However, the hay bales he lined up wouldn't hold back runoff.

We had to build our own defense. Nearly $5,000 later, we had a stone retaining wall, a French drain and additional concrete poured along the front of the house. The basement has stayed dry, but mud and water continue to flow down Mr. McMansion's property for days after every rain.

When the chill came, the McMansion site continued to be a hazard.

Water flowing down the hill sheeted across the road, coating it with black ice. It was no surprise one February night when a car spun on the slick, invisible patch and careened into a guardrail just past our house.

Again, the town honchos came down and told the owner to resolve the problem with retaining walls or berms or landscaping. The environmental inspector seemed to feel as distraught and helpless as I did.

One day, the builder approached us as we were getting out of the car in our driveway. Naively, I thought he was coming to apologize for the hassles. He had a different agenda.

He mentioned he was working out the runoff problem, but added, with a chuckle, that we shouldn't have bought a house downhill from his. Then he told us that another builder was hoping to put three houses on 2 acres directly across from our house and next to his. He revealed that he was trying to muscle the landowner into selling the plot so he could build two, rather than three, houses.

He wondered if we wanted to join together to fight the current landowner's plans for a three-home subdivision. And he said if he bought the land, he would be willing to pay us for a drainage easement that would run across the road and under our lawn.

It was my turn to laugh. I let him know I wasn't too pleased with his building skills, and we've never exchanged a word since.

By spring, the new house, with its giant palladium windows and Romanesque arches, finally appeared in its homogenous splendor. I couldn't have been happier than when the trees leaved and the view of the house was entirely obscured from my meager homestead.

But the rains kept coming and so did the mud, which often made the road look like a Nepalese village during a monsoon. Even after Mr. McMansion paved a runway-length tar driveway, silt continued to run onto the roads and into the storm drains.

One day in August, the highway department came down to survey the road.

"I don't know how this guy got approvals to do this," one guy said, shaking his head. He promised to send his crew out to raise the berm even higher alongside my house, and they did.

We are getting ready for winter and are worried about the road icing again. I imagine the highway department will salt frequently. We will be extra vigilant coming in and out of our driveway. And Mr. McMansion? He will sit up on his hill, perhaps scouring the classifieds for additional development sites where he can replicate his mistakes.

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