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As Florida McMansions multiply, neighbors cope in the shadows

Shirah Levine in her West Davis Boulevard backyard on Davis Island in Tampa. Levine is upset that the mansion being constructed in the background, which looms over the one story home she shares with her girlfriend, is a serious invasion of privacy. The mansion's windows look straight down on her pool. LOREN ELLIOTT  | Times

Shirah Levine in her West Davis Boulevard backyard on Davis Island in Tampa. Levine is upset that the mansion being constructed in the background, which looms over the one story home she shares with her girlfriend, is a serious invasion of privacy. The mansion's windows look straight down on her pool. LOREN ELLIOTT | Times
Published Jan. 22, 2016

After moving to Tampa's Davis Islands four years ago, Shirah Levine and Sara Lentz relished their privacy when relaxing by the pool of their one-story, ranch-style home.

No more.

Over the past several months, a two-story concrete behemoth has been rising just a few feet from their fence. When the 4,300-square-foot house is finished, "whoever lives there can look down at us in our swimsuits all day long," Levine said. "It's creepy."

A block away on West Davis Boulevard, a much larger place that covers almost two lots is going up next to Kevin Thompson's home of 20 years.

"I'm not going to see the sun unless I climb on my roof," said Thompson, a University of South Florida psychology professor. "Why would you need a house that size unless you have a family of 20 or are housing Syrian refugees?"

If there's one trend that has characterized Tampa Bay's new-home market in recent years, it's the proliferation of huge new houses replacing or overwhelming smaller ones in established neighborhoods like Davis Islands and St. Petersburg's Snell Isle. Many Realtors and property owners welcome the new construction, which is boosting sales and driving up value.

But it can be less than wonderful for homeowners who live next to these enormous abodes. They must endure months of banging and pounding, only to face the prospect of diminished privacy and an inevitable change in the look and feel of the neighborhood.

Some decide they don't want to stay.

RELATED: Why are so many big homes on small lots being built in the Tampa Bay area?

In 2005, when Darren and Molly Dodge bought a waterfront home in St. Petersburg's Shore Acres community, the house next door was a typical one-story ranch. But after it was knocked down two years ago, clearing the way for an ultra-modern colossus, the couple put their own place on the market.

"We didn't like that big house being built up, it just took our privacy away," Darren Dodge said.

Because of federal flood insurance rules, the new house had to be elevated so much that its first floor was above the level of the Dodges' 6-foot fence. "Where their feet walk is higher than our fence," Dodge said. "The fence didn't give us privacy any more."

The couple — he's in sales, she's a physician — then had to wait months for a buyer even though waterfront property was in hot demand.

"Trying to sell during construction is very difficult," Dodge said. "All that debris and stuff that blows in your yard, the cement trucks tearing up the concrete in front of the house."

Not until the McMansion was finished did someone finally buy the couple's home last summer. They have since moved elsewhere in St. Petersburg.

In another waterfront area of Shore Acres, Greg Farner decided to stay put when a developer bought the small home next door.

''The first thing I did when they tore down the house was plant bamboo," he said.

Despite the fast-growing screen between the two properties, the new residents will still have a good view of Farner's yard and pool from their second-floor windows.

"We love where we are but it's a total loss of privacy," said Farner, an owner of Bay Area Auction Services. He takes some pleasure, though, from the fact that the McMansion is covering so much of its lot that there's barely enough room for even a small pool.

"They'll be envious of my backyard," Farner said of his future neighbors," and I'll be envious of their house."

In some parts of Tampa Bay, homeowners are fighting efforts to build McMansions that they say are disproportionately large for their lots or out of keeping with the area. A St. Petersburg commission recently denied a request to split a lot on Snell Isle to permit construction of two McMansions after residents from several neighborhoods banded together in protest.

RELATED: In fight against McMansions, Snell Isle residents get a victory — for now

Even for some Realtors, the bigger-is-better trend arouses mixed feelings.

"The good news is that there is still money out there, people are still building, and we are all grateful for that," said Lance Williams, an agent with Sotheby's International Realty in Tampa. "Personally, I'd like to see new construction branch out into more diverse architecture. I think that we could benefit by borrowing ideas from other cites but taking into account our environment and geography. I'd also like to see some of the great architecture of the '20s through the '50s preserved."

It was the eclectic mix of homes on Davis Islands that attracted Levine and Lentz when they moved from Venice to the Tampa Bay area. Many of the islands' original Mediterranean-style structures share the quiet streets with ranches, bungalows, traditionals and mid-century moderns.

Levine and Lentz settled on a 55-year-old ranch house with a large fenced yard, ideal for the dogs they rescue from animal shelters.

"We bought for privacy. We're two females in a relationship and we wanted privacy," said Levine, an equities trader who is marrying Lentz, a nurse, this spring.

All was fine until the elderly woman next door died. Her heirs, apparently unfamiliar with the hot Davis Islands market, sold the house in July for $295,000 when it could have gone for tens of thousands of dollars more.

"Devonshire swooped in, bought the house and immediately tore it down," said Levine, referring to one of the bay area's most active builders. "It was like a bad dream. I used to walk around the neighborhood with the dogs and see these houses being knocked down and big boxes going up and think, wouldn't that stink? And then it happened to us."

Levine said she and Lentz aren't opposed to new homes, only to huge ones that sit a few feet from neighboring property and loom over everything around them. The couple have stopped trimming their large fan palms, but even those aren't big enough to block the view of their yard from the McMansion's second floor.

"We've already had the construction guys saying, 'you have a nice pool,"' Levine said. "I get that (Devonshire) is trying to make money, but I do think that it's not asking too much that If I'm laying out with Sara having coffee that we don't want somebody watching us."

Joshua Layton, an owner of Devonshire Custom Homes, said he has spoken with the couple about landscaping the house (priced at $949,000) to shield it from it from their property. Because of the flood insurance regulations, he notes, new homes on Davis Islands must be elevated above the flood zone.

"Even if it's one story," he said, "it's going to be above you."

Of the dozens of houses Devonshire has built or is building in the Tampa Bay area, Layton said, only a few have drawn complaints from people living nearby. "The majority are glad to see a nice new home going in the neighborhood," he said.

After Devonshire began erecting a 3,3000 square foot house on Snell Isle's Almedo Way, real estate broker Peter Apostolou and his wife sold their much smaller house two doors down. But Apostolou said it was because they had purchased a lot in the Old Northeast to build a new home, not because they disliked the many McMansions going up on Snell Isle.

"I think a lot of those '50 ranches were just too small for most people," he said. "We outgrew the house, and all the money at that point was in the value of the land, so I think it's a natural progression that those homes get torn down and bigger homes built as long as it's done tastefully."

Apostolou's Snell Isle house was bulldozed several weeks ago. The lot now sits vacant, a clean slate for the next big house.

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate