In the world of real estate, it is not “what you see is what you get!”
Very often in my meetings with prospective land buyers and property owners, I find that many tend to make very broad assumptions about the possible future uses and development potential a tract of vacant land may have.
This also goes for neighboring property owners who discover (often after the fact) that the vast amount of pristine open space they have been enjoying from their kitchen window for the last several years is on the verge of receiving final approval for a substantial mixed use land development project.
I often sit in public hearings (as I did just last night) and hear local residents come out in protest of a site plan that has been proposed. In many cases I feel bad for those speakers as some claim that they were not aware that a nearby property could be developed.
Privately owned land that has laid vacant for years may have been master planned for development for years. But for many that vacant period can lead some to believe they are entitled to see that property remain the same for as long as they live there.
In all of these cases it comes down that ancient Latin phrase Caveat Emptor. Very familiar to lawyers, real estate professionals and others engaged in the business of transferring property. In English it translates to Let the Buyer Beware.
“Beware of what?” some may ask.
The “What” is something most residential Realtors are not familiar with, as well as a surprising number of commercial real estate brokers, if they are not engaged in the land use arena of real estate development.
It is known as the comprehensive land use plan, which is the foundation from which all land use decisions are based upon at a local level in Frederick County, Maryland.
Every property owner and would-be resident of a community should understand the purpose of the county’s comprehensive plan and the impact it may have on nearby property in their community … and all real estate agents/brokers who sell and/or lease any type of real estate should make it part of a disclosure package given to their customer and clients.
Not unlike a majority of jurisdictions throughout the nation, this document is supposed to be influenced and developed from several parties on a local level: residents, county planners, nearby communities and municipalities … and of course, local elected officials. But there is also a significant amount of direction that is driven by the State of Maryland Department of the Environment and its office of Planning which mandates that such a plan be developed in the first place.
It’s meant to be a twenty year road map for state and local governments to use to deal with the inevitable population growth in the region. This includes the proper mix of housing, commercial development, traffic patterns, public utilities, schools, parks, police protection, etc. over that period. Additionally in recent decades there has been a strong push to carve out and create corridors of open space, protect prime agricultural land and other areas targeted for land conservation.
The state requires that this plan be updated periodically at a local level to keep up with changes in demographics, socioeconomic trends, the economy and other matters that may significantly influence the dynamics of a complex plan.
A comprehensive land use plan is what lays a foundation for where certain zoning designations are placed — what I’ll call the allowed “here and now” uses. So a property can be zoned for an agriculture use, but “master planned” for a future residential mixed use development in the comprehensive plan.
As an area grows and maximizes the current zoned area, the “master plan” will provide good cause for a possible change in zoning to accommodate that growth in surrounding areas.
So it is important to understand that there is a very clear distinction between the long range outlook for a region provided by a comprehensive plan and the allowed “here and now” uses of a zoning designation.
Frederick County’s current comprehensive plan was adopted in the final year of the Jan Gardner administration of the Board of County Commissioners in 2010.
The state mandate at the time was for the local governments within the county plan for an increase of 36,000 new households by 2030. How they got there was pretty much up to the county.
A significant component of such a gargantuan effort requires a collaborative planning effort among the county, its twelve municipalities and other jurisdictions such as Fort Detrick.
In Frederick County, due to the very polarizing and significant influences of the growth verses no-growth advocates (interestingly it is hard to find anyone who will openly state that they are a hard-line Growther or No-Growther), this process can and has become more of a political football which has often left out many key players.
So for one to think that politics have not driven a zigzagging course in recent years is just naïve.
For example many have forgotten the fact that there was minimal communication, and much less collaboration on the part of the Gardner Administration with these other jurisdictions, as they set forth to craft a plan that was completely unrealistic in being able to meet the 36,000 unit target. It included the removal of future development land use designations from about 400 properties in the Comprehensive Plan.
At the time a very restrictive Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) was imposed that left many zoned properties locked in a development no-man’s land … not to mention the fact that the nation had just been introduced to one of the worst economic recessions in 70 years. With all that said many did not take notice of the inadequacy of the 2010 plan.
Once the change over to the Young administration took place, a different view was taken of the comprehensive plan. The APFO was reformed to provide a “pay-go” provision for development projects and many of those properties that were down zoned were revisited and restored the zoning that was taken away just a few years earlier.
At the end of the day as the dust is settling on the last Board of County Commissioners in the Frederick County, there appear to be about 21,000 qualifiable future housing units* now in the development pipeline.
With historical absorption rates (building permits issued per year) of between 1,000 and 2,000 units per year not expecting to change over the next 16 years, it is very realistic to expect that the county will still fall short of the state’s 36,000 housing unit target.
Some believe that the personal leadership styles of both Gardner and Young have burned bridges on both sides of the debate over growth in Frederick County … and now with both throwing their hats in the ring as candidates for this coming November’s race for the first ever County Executive position, we can all be assured that the topic of growth will still be on the table.
So I suggest a bit of Caveat Emptor to all Frederick County voters as this election season heats up!
The author: Rocky Mackintosh is President of MacRo, Ltd., a Land and Commercial Real Estate firm based in Frederick, Maryland. He also writes for TheTentacle.com.
* according to statistics supplied by Rodgers Consulting.