$1 Million ‘Monster House’ Must Go, Court Rules

The South Dakota Supreme Court ordered this home in an historic area of the city to comply with local building codes or be torn down. (Christopher Vondracek/CNS)

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (CN) – The South Dakota Supreme Court weighed in on a neighbor dispute in a historic, elm-lined district of Sioux Falls on Thursday morning, unanimously upholding an injunction against a bulky, canary-yellow home that broke code, made a neighbor’s fireplace useless, and has become known in the local press as the “monster house.”

“It’s a total victory,” said Steven M. Johnson, attorney with Johnson Janklow & Abdallah and counsel for the plaintiffs, by phone. “They (defendants) either have to comply or move it.”

McKennan Park sits blocks south of downtown Sioux Falls and is eye-candy for aesthetic 20th century homes: spacious porches and 1930s Tudors ring the park’s tennis courts, wading pool, and stone bandshell. But turmoil moved in after Dr. Sarah and Joseph Sapienza started building their neo-Victorian dream home three years ago.

Rather than renovate their newly purchased home, the Sapienzas decided to raze the property – listed as “noncontributing” to the district’s historic legacy – and build new. They received approval from the Sioux Falls Board of Historic Preservation using blueprints drawn up by an architect they’d fired, acknowledging the home would be bigger than plans indicated. After hiring contractors who’d never worked in historic districts and receiving permits from the city, construction began in October 2014.

By the spring, the neighborhood found out just how big the home would be: a massive double-porch stretched the property’s width and grand gables shot into the air.

(Christopher Vondracek/CNS)

Next-door neighbors Pierce and Barbara McDowell, whose 1924 home sat now seven feet away, worried. In May 2015, a city fire inspector told the McDowells they’d no longer be able to operate their fireplace due to chimney height easements. The Sapienzas’ house loomed over theirs and didn’t appear to comply with code. When a cease-and-desist letter to the Sapienzas went unanswered, they sued.

“There are about seven, eight, or nine violations, including height and mass and all the rest,” their attorney Johnson said.

The trial court agreed: the Sapienzas’ new home is a nuisance.

Judge John Pekas wrote the interloping domicile “devastated” their neighbors, contained a window looking directly into the bedroom window of McDowells’ daughter, blocked natural light, and erased any privacy in the dining room.

That the Sapienzas’ home stood out, though, was never up for debate. At 44.5 feet tall, their home towered over their neighbors’. Homes in the neighborhood average 32 feet, and code requires homes be no taller than 36 feet. But the Sapienzas’ attorney argued that while McKennan Park carries historic designation, some individual homes like the Sapienzas do not. Moreover, the only way to bring the home into compliance would be a substantial – and costly – renovation.

“This is a difficult case,” South Dakota Supreme Court Judge Steven L. Zinter wrote in the opinion.

“[S]ubstantial harm will befall whichever party does not prevail.”

The state’s high court held in 2010 that the phrase “historic property” does not include the districts themselves. But in 2011, the South Dakota Legislature enacted a statue expressly defining historic districts as being bound to historic code regulations.

“This history,” Zinter writes, “reflects that the Legislature intended the historic preservation laws to apply to all properties within historic districts, not just specific properties listed on the state or national registers.”

(Christopher Vondracek/CNS)

The high court found the impact of the Sapienzas’ home affected more than just the adjacent property owners. Endorsing the trial court’s finding, Zinter wrote that many homeowners argued the home “undermined the entire historic district.”

Ultimately, he and the four other justices found the preservation of the neighborhood’s historic character is not “disproportionate” to the hardship the Sapienzas will suffer.

Counsel for the Sapienzas did not respond to requests for comment by email and phone.

Johnson, the McDowells’ attorney, said the Sapienzas will now be under court-ordered supervision.

“The easiest thing would be to just tear down,” he said.

The state’s high court tossed a claim against Sioux Falls for approving the building permit, finding local governments “should not, for the particular benefit of individual persons, bear the burden of ensuring that every single building constructed within its jurisdiction fully complies with applicable codes.”

Currently ongoing is a federal investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office into a collapse of a popular downtown building under renovation last winter. The Sioux Falls Argus Leader has reported that city permits to remove asbestos and remove lode-bearing walls in the structure were not approved by the city.

While home prices in South Dakota are among the most affordable in the nation, properties in the McKennan Park district frequently range around $500,000 according to Zillow.com.

(Christopher Vondracek/CNS)
%d bloggers like this: