What's neighborly, in terms of new building?

It started on Magnolia Avenue when a builder put up a two-story house in a neighborhood full of ranch homes.

Then it moved from the Enslen area to the La Loma neighborhood, where a property owner built an addition so large it earned the moniker of "monster house."

Now the push for a citywide "neighborhood compatibility" ordinance is in east Modesto, where residents blocked a property owner's attempt to subdivide a one-acre parcel on Scenic Court into four lots.

"They need to take into consideration the surrounding community," said David Loucks, 55, a teacher who rallied his neighbors to block the Scenic Court proposal. "It's part of the culture of the neighborhood."

Their calls, coupled with a request from the Planning Commission, have city leaders weighing whether an ordinance would make a difference in the preservation of Modesto neighborhoods.

"We want neighborhoods to be compatible," Councilwoman Kristin Olsen said. "There are places where that hasn't taken place, and we do need more tools to address them."

But compatibility lies in the eyes of the beholder. Loucks and Olsen didn't agree on the plans for Scenic Court.

She was the only council member who voted Sept. 11 to let developer William Machado pursue his proposal to split the property into four by building on two "flag lots" behind two homes.

Flag lots earn their name because they're reached by long driveways that can resemble flag poles on a map. The city allows them in some instances to encourage development on awkward parcels.

Loucks and his neighbors argued they wouldn't fit with Scenic Court's atmosphere, where large homes sit on big lots. Councilman Bob Dunbar cited "neighborhood compatibility" when he voted to reject Machado's plan.

Olsen maintains that Machado's proposal would have been fine.

"I don't think they made a convincing argument that it was incompatible with the neighborhood," she said.

Council can reject mismatches

Dunbar, a 12-year veteran of city planning decisions, said the council has enough sway to strike incompatible homes.

"This was a rare situation," said Dunbar, a former member of the Planning Commission. "It was really a situation where the developer was trying to make more money. I think the council just simply did the right thing."

Modesto Planning Division Manager Patrick Kelly said "compatibility" is a factor in city design decisions. It's written in the zoning code.

That gave the council the power to reject Machado's plan even though the city Planning Commission had approved it.

Kelly and his staff plan to ask the council's Economic Development Committee whether the city should pursue extra compatibility protection.

Councilwoman Janice Keating, who leads that committee, said new restrictions would have to be countered with respect for property owner rights.

"I would be looking for a nice balance, if it's achievable," she said.

Amy Neumann, a Magnolia Avenue resident who sits on the city's Board of Zoning Adjustment, began urging council members to adopt a compatibility ordinance early this year when Craig Harris of Hilmar and a partner tore down a house on her street and built the first two-story home on her block.

"The problem's become more widespread," said Neumann, 37.

Neumann said she and a member of the La Loma Neighborhood Association have worked with the city on some ideas for the ordinance.

Dennis Wilson, a consultant who advised Machado on the Scenic Court proposal, said he understood why the Magnolia and La Loma neighborhood homes were pressing some residents to push for a compatibility ordinance. He said his flag lot proposal should have passed even a heightened standard.

The Scenic Court residents "just don't want a flag lot, and it's a NIMBY situation," he said.

Dunbar said the three proposals held up as examples of incompatible designs represent unusual debates for the council.

"Those are the only three issues I can think of," he said.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.