Buyer Can Avoid Surprise on Nearby Land

By Lerner, Michele | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 18, 2001 | Go to article overview

Buyer Can Avoid Surprise on Nearby Land


Lerner, Michele, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


House hunters who finally find a neighborhood they like or a home that backs to plenty of open space often worry that the neighborhood could change or the open space could be filled with other homes or a new road.

Horror stories abound. Many a homeowner has come home from work one day to find that the peaceful wooded lot behind his house has become a field of mud encircled by construction equipment.

Plenty of area homeowners are experiencing the trauma of new housing developments springing up between home and work, clogging the roads with more commuters.

Even though potential buyers might remember to ask their Realtor about the vacant lot next to a home that interests them, they may not realize that a lot more information is available on plans that could affect not only their peace of mind, but also the value of their property.

Finding out about planned developments might seem like a daunting task, but in some areas, it is as simple as making a single phone call or visiting a Web site.

Before beginning the research on a particular parcel of land, it helps to have an address or legal description of that land or an adjacent piece of property so the area in question can be identified accurately.

"All too often, many Realtors don't direct prospective buyers to the planning or zoning office even though technically they should," says Julie Pastor, director of planning for Loudoun County. "A quick visit to the Web site or to our office could get them on the right track. If consumers are looking at a house with a nice piece of grass nearby, they could find out whether it will stay that way."

According to Donna McNeally, assistant director of zoning evaluation for Fairfax County, "You really can't tell what a place will look like in the future by just looking around the neighborhood. People sometimes ask their Realtor, who will tell them that a piece of land will be kept as open space, but it won't always be correct or current information. People should always check first with the local planning office before buying a property."

Part of the problem with determining plans for land is that more than one office may be involved with a particular parcel, depending on how it is to be used. Additionally, plans sometimes change.

"Future plans and decisions are market-driven," says John Morris, manager of land use and environmental affairs for Anne Arundel County. "Sometimes a project happens, and sometimes it doesn't. The county doesn't always have a say over the timing, but plans are in place and accessible to consumers in several places depending on whether the area in question is in a new subdivision or an older subdivision or if it is zoned for public use."

In some counties, planning and zoning have been combined into one office, but in others they are in two departments. While both planning and zoning have an impact on land use, they involve two types of processes that work together.

County governments have agencies that work together to create a comprehensive plan, which is essentially a guide to how development or the maintenance of open space or parkland should occur. A zoning ordinance is a legal document with the force of law behind it that regulates the type, scale and intensity of development within a zoning district.

While the comprehensive plan for each county is reviewed periodically and can be changed, landowners and developers can request zoning changes and exemptions, too.

"People need to know both what the comprehensive plan says about a particular area and how that area is zoned," says Liz Via, chief of the Development Services Department for Prince William County, Va. "For example, a buyer interested in a property being built in western Prince William which is surrounded by farmland could expect that land to remain as a farm forever.

"But, while it may be currently zoned for agriculture," she says, "the comprehensive plan may call for single-family homes or town homes to be built in the future. …

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