The first time Mary Glorioso heard that an apartment complex was going to be built in the wooded area behind her Harford County condominium was late last year. A neighbor had happened upon a surveyor who said the area was being cleared -- that week.
Before that, Glorioso, and most of her neighbors in the Laurel Woods community, said they were told the wooded area was wetland that would never be developed.
That was partly true. The area between Glorioso's home and the new project is wetland, but plans for another complex behind the wetland area had been approved by the county in 1984. Those plans were available in the county's planning and zoning office for any home buyer who knew where to look.
The problem was that most of Glorioso's neighbors are first-time homebuyers who never thought to investigate the county's development plans.
"It was a complete shock to me," Glorioso said, adding that she relied on the person who sold her her condominium for information about future developments.
"The fact is, don't ever trust your sales person," Glorioso concluded.
County officials are well aware that new home buyers often fail to learn of proposed projects in their neighborhood before they buy.
Some officials are taking steps to change that by seeking to require sellers to provide general plan maps to potential buyers before a contract is signed.
Modeled after similar legislation approved by Montgomery County in 1988, buyer-beware bills are currently under consideration in Howard County and the Carroll County city of Westminster.
Historically, home purchasers fell under the axiom of "buyer beware." They were responsible for finding out whatever they could about a home, and its potential perils, before they bought. But, as suburban sprawl led younger buyers into areas unfamiliar to them, and ripe for further development, government increasingly fielded complaints from home owners who believed that they had been misled about their property.
"I think it's an excellent idea," said Westminster planning director Thomas B. Beyard, who added that his office often is where irate homeowners call when they find out too late that a major development is planned near their property.
"I don't want to say we spend full time answering questions, but these are questions that someone should have answered before the person bought the home," Beyard said.
Still, home builders and real estate agents may be reluctant to accept the new responsibility.
Sylvia Gorman, president of the Carroll County Association of Realtors, said she has had to endure the wrath of her fellow Realtors since she proposed the idea of a buyer-beware bill in Westminster.
Gorman said some real estate agents believe they have "already been marked as dishonest," and that the bill compounds their problems. Gorman, however, said she was trying to place the burden of informing the buyer on sellers, not the real estate agent.
In Howard County, council members Paul Farragut and Shane Pendergrass announced yesterday that they will jointly sponsor a bill requiring sellers to provide prospective buyers with maps from the county's general plan.
Farragut, who calls the measure a "consumer-protection bill," said he feels confident that some form of the legislation can be passed this year. He added that the measure already has the tentative support of Howard County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray.
Farragut added, however, that the local real estate community has not responded formally to the proposal and he is not sure what the reaction there will be.
Montgomery County Council Member Michael Subin, who sponsored the 1988 bill there, said real estate agents initially opposed the bill. The legislation, however, has cut down on the number of complaints from "people who were saying there were trees and patches of woods here and the bulldozers showed up one day and now they're all gone," Subin said.
Elsewhere in the region, Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Carroll County officials say they are not considering similar legislation at this time.
The Harford County Council last year rejected a buyer-beware bill after concerns were raised over how the law would be enforced and the cost of maps, said Arden Holdridge, a county planning administrator.
In Westminster and Howard County, the laws would be enforced through fines of up to $400 and $500, respectively. Maps would be available for $5 to $10.