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. Buyers need to call the Planning Office and ask, ‘What is the property zoned for?’ and ‘What does the comprehensive plan call for?’ It makes a difference to ask both questions, because you want to know about both the near-term and future-term prospects for your neighborhood.”
In Prince George’s County, prospective buyers can contact the Planning and Zoning Department, but they need to be as specific as possible about the parcel of land to which they are referring when asking questions.
“People need an address and a legal description, if possible, in order to confirm that we are talking about the same piece of property,” says Michelle Meneely, senior planning technician for the Prince George’s County Planning and Zoning Department. “Basically they are master plans for specific areas, but we still cannot tell you exactly how a property will be used until someone requests a permit for that land. We can tell you how a property is zoned, which allows the land to be used in any way within a table of uses for that type of zoning. People can also contact the Permits and Review Division for information.”
In Fairfax County, a system has been put in place with an expert designated each day as the “planner of the day.” This expert can answer both zoning and planning questions and can refer to the comprehensive plan’s maps. Local libraries also have copies of the comprehensive plan for reference purposes, and it can be found in the offices of each member of the county Board of Supervisors. A designated planner of the day also is available at Fairfax County’s Department of Transportation to answer questions about potential road construction projects.
For information about Falls Church and the City of Fairfax, the individual city governments must be contacted.
In Loudoun County, homeowners or potential buyers can call the Planning Office for questions about plans for a neighborhood or a parcel of land, or the Land Development and Zoning Office if it is a question concerning how that land could be used at the present time. The Economic Development Office handles business prospects and projects.
Arlington County’s Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development can provide consumers with information within that jurisdiction, and the city of Alexandria also has a Planning and Community Development Office as well as a Zoning Office.
Prince William County has combined the planning and zoning functions in one office.
In Maryland, the incorporated towns of Montgomery County must be contacted individually for questions relating to land within those territories. Planning and zoning functions are combined in that county with the parks and recreation services.
Prince George’s County also combines planning and zoning in one office.
In Anne Arundel County, buyers can contact the planning office for new subdivision information but need to check with the land records of the clerk of the court for older areas.
“Within the Development and Review Division, the planners have been assigned geographically so they are very familiar with each area and will be aware of any plans that are under review,” says Mr. Morris. “In addition, Anne Arundel now has 16 small planning areas so you can be referred to the appropriate small-area planner to talk about the comprehensive plan for that area. The small-area planners also know about public plans for things like schools, parks and roads.”
No matter which jurisdiction a parcel of land falls into, a plan is in place somewhere that identifies how that property will look in the future. Consumers concerned with the appearance of their neighborhood or potential neighborhood should take advantage of the government employees assigned to assist them. Whether it takes one phone call or more or a visit to an office or library to pore over a map, that is time worth spending to avoid a shocking future moment when the rolling green farmland outside your kitchen window suddenly sprouts town houses, a day care center or a gas station.
Arlington County: www.co.arlington.va.us, 703/228-3525 for Department of Community Planning, Housing and Development.
Fairfax County: www.co.fairfax.va.us, then click on government, then on planning and zoning; 703/324-1380 for the “planner of the day”; 703/324-1100 Transportation Department “planner of the day.”
Loudoun County: www.co.loudoun.va.us. Information is found under Department of Planning list; 703/777-0246 for Department of Planning; 703/777-0397 for Land Development and Zoning.
Prince William County: www.co.prince-william.va.us; 703/792-6830 for Planning Office.
City of Alexandria: www.ci.alexandria.va.us; 703/838-4666, Department of Planning and Community Development; 703/838-4688, Zoning Office.
Fairfax City: www.ci.fairfax.va.us; 703/385-7930 for the Department of Community Development and Planning.
City of Falls Church: www.ci.falls-church.va.us; 703/248-5040 for planning; 703/248-5015 for zoning.
Anne Arundel County: www.co.anne-arundel.md.us, See Planning and Zoning Agency for comprehensive site including descriptions of plans, lists of documents that can be ordered; 410/222-7455 for planning information or 410/222-1425 for the Land Records Office of the Clerk of the Court.
Montgomery County: www.co.mo.md.us; 301/495-4610 for Information and Records Section of the Development and Review Division the Department of Parks and Planning.
Incorporated towns information numbers:
Washington Grove, 301/926-2256.
Prince George’s County: www.goprincegeorgescounty.com; 301/952-3195 for Planning and Zoning or 301/883-5784 for permits and review division.