County Should Help Prevent Surprises

COMMENT

April 16, 1995|By MIKE BURNS

Maryland has title insurance to ensure clear title to real property. There are zoning maps, master land use plans, land plat books, even plain old maps that show where public facilities such as schools, highways, fire stations and trash dumps are located.

Harford County has "adequate public facilities" requirements for new developments, to assure that schools, water and sewer, and minimal roads are sufficient to serve the development. Forms for inspection of radon, termites and well water quality are among the checkpoints to protect the real estate buyer.

Yet residents of three different communities have come forward the past month to claim that they were deceived in buying houses next to unexpected hazards and nuisances.

"We didn't know, they didn't tell us" is the common refrain. And we tend to believe that in most of these cases, the homeowners are genuinely surprised, even if the county maps did indicate a suspicious neighbor in their midst.

Much of the consternation is about past activities or old plans that have become current problems. In other words, these people did not knowingly buy homes in the middle of an airport flight approach path, or next to an operating rock quarry or a Superfund toxic waste dump.

In one case, they bought homes near a former chemical weapons test site of Aberdeen Proving Ground's Edgewood area. Now they find that the military land probably contains unexploded shells and dangerous chemical agents in warheads. While the testing stopped years ago, the hazardous residue remains a threat that the Army is seeking to remove. But that could involve accidental detonation of buried munitions.

Another example is a residential development in Abingdon that backs up to a former gravel mining pit and landfill. The state ordered the rubblefill closed in 1992 because toxic chemicals had been found in pollution-monitoring wells. Some homebuyers the Village of Bynum Run thought that was the end of it. But the state recently gave the owner permission to resume gravel mining, as long as the county agreed. The fight is now over county approval, which residents fear will reopen the entire dig and fill operation that has caused so many environmental problems over the years.

In Riverside, some residents say they were caught unaware of plans for a county-required roadway next to their homes, requiring the leveling of a berm and a stand of trees that buffers their property. Although the Belcamp Garth road has been on county maps for six years, newcomers to the Caldwell Square development say they thought the area was designated open space. Construction of the road is to begin this month.

The circumstances, and the relative danger/irritation, of these separate cases vary considerably. In some cases, homebuyers may have been eager to ignore any potential problem or to ask any questions. Salespersons may have been less forthcoming in some cases than in others, evading answers to legitimate

questions. Even detailed maps of developments may not detail what was planned or permitted on adjacent parcels of land.

But there's certainly more to this than bad luck or bad judgment on the part of homebuyers. In each case, the land was zoned and approved by the county for residential use. Despite all the legal disclaimers, that strongly implies that the county considers the land habitable.

What should follow from this experience is an obligation on the part of the county to require fuller disclosure of surrounding activities for residential land and home sales.

Mentioned above are some of the requirements for sales of homes, requirements of both government and mortgage lenders, that help to protect the utility of the property.

A few more things would help.

Such as providing zoning and landbook maps of the area where the home is located, not just the specific development itself.

Such as disclosures that note unusual nearby land uses, landfills, military sites and the like.

There can never be complete disclosure of everything that could potentially infringe upon an owner's full enjoyment of property. The list would grow too long, the disclaimers would become so much legal boilerplate, glanced over by most prospects and frightening a few others out of ever buying any real estate.

To be sure, there are people who are quite willing to take a chance on known potential risks in order to pay less for a home. They should be able to do so, as long as they are made aware of the immediate risks. It's the failure to disclose known risks that is at issue here.

Harford County's efforts in recent years to push developers to provide disclosures about nearby landfills and Aberdeen Proving Ground activities is a start. Disclosure should be a requirement, not a recommendation.

The requirement should extend to subsequent sales as well. Home sales should also require area maps showing planned public facilities, existing private land uses, easements and rights of way that lie in the vicinity.

This will add slightly to closing costs, but government and the real estate industry know full well there are other ways to reduce those high costs in Maryland.

Homebuyers must make more of an effort to inform themselves, rather than relying on sweet sales talk. Providing this information would help homebuyers make better decisions. Government should take this step to protect its residents.

It's a lot more effective than granting a tax abatement for the nuisance years later.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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