Sticking up for snout houses

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At the risk of looking snooty, Cedar Rapids is turning up its nose at “snout houses.”

So-called snout houses are homes with a decidedly garage-forward design. My own vinyl castle in north Marion is defiantly snouty, with its garage standing out as its most prominent architectural feature and its front door tucked back and to the side.

Five-plus years ago when I last wrote about snout houses, some readers insisted my garage doesn’t protrude far enough to be considered a snout. I say we can’t have these petty intra-snout squabbles when we’re again under siege. Enough with the snout-measuring.

This time, Cedar Rapids city officials are considering zoning changes that could place restrictions on snout houses. As the less-than-complimentary moniker implies, some folks see them as downright unattractive. They don’t like the look of a neighborhood filled with protruding snouts. They insist the design even discourages neighbors from having neighborly interactions.

Some officials would rather see homes with garages tucked neatly in the back, maybe along alleys, with welcoming front porches. Builders counter that snout houses are more economical and fit well on smallish lots, even if they’re not stunning to the eye.

Public forums are being planned for February or March to gain resident input. A Colorado-based consultant is guiding the city’s zoning code update.

I’ve been around here for the better part of 10 years. So I know whenever I see a city initiative placing wistful aesthetics over frugal practicality, driven by an outside consultant, it’s clearly going to be a slam dunk with the populace. I hope you know I tend to be sarcastic.

I imagine a fair amount of public sentiment on this issue matches a ticked-off email sent this past week by former Cedar Rapids City Council member Don Karr to current council members. Karr, apparently a snout-house-dweller, is no fan of restrictions.

“I guess it’s time for me to get back on that council and stop all this stupid,” Karr said.

Council member Ann Poe tried to be diplomatic in her response.

“You know better than anyone, given your wonderful background in our city’s history and your eye for keeping and maintaining our historical structures that the policies we determine right now will set the table for future generations and the kind of neighborhoods they live in. Will they be welcoming, will they encourage neighborly engagement?” Poe wrote in an email to Karr.

I’m certainly no enemy of welcoming aesthetics. I defended the city when folks sneered at downtown “parklets.” I stood up for those curious street planters. I never wrote a discouraging word about new bike lanes confounding so many. Greene Square’s redo? Love it. For the most part, when the city tries to spruce up the old joint, remodel the parlor, I’m on board.

But then they came for the snout houses.

This time, I’m off the bandwagon.

Folks who live in nice, big homes tree-lined neighborhoods may look down at lowly snout houses. But people living in little apartments, trying to scrape up enough scratch for a dream and a down payment, might see things a lot differently. They might not be so concerned about protruding garages, historical significance or the finer points of new urbanism.

There are regulations related to homebuilding that make sense. Of course, for me, requiring topsoil replacement comes to mind. But that’s a rule focused on the clear common good served by reducing runoff, mitigating flash flooding and improving water quality. Benefits are broad and compelling.

The common-good arguments being made against snout houses are more narrow, weaker and subjective.

When I put a fire bowl in the driveway in front of my snout, and my neighbors gather around it for beers and conversation, it doesn’t feel like our big garages have discouraged neighborliness. And I bet there are neighborhoods filled with great front porches but far less human connection. Neighborhood interaction is about the people who live there, not the size of their snouts.

In Portland, Ore., which banned snout houses in 2000, officials complained they didn’t pass the “trick-or-treat test.” Kids, they insisted, couldn’t find a door hidden behind a snout. We watched three huge bags of candy swiftly evaporate amid a sea of kids last October.

Maybe we could solve the whole debate simply by changing that derisive name. Five years ago, I suggested “garage-forward villa.” Not classy enough? How about the “Cyrano de Bergerac?”

I also floated the idea of a Snout House Festival, with pork barbecue, snouts for the kids and a ceremonial, synchronized opening of garage doors. It has yet to take off, but I haven’t given up. It could be huge, believe me.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about what happened in November. And one sentiment I’ve seen expressed by voters who rolled the dice on big change is government too often focuses on issues that have no real effect on their daily lives. Sometimes they feel as if they live on a different planet than their elected leaders.

This snout house regulation drive looks like one of those alien issues. The city shouldn’t let this sort of stuff distract us from real, pressing housing issues. Forget about snouts.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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