Illegally divided land spurs concerns

Residents learn by chance about little-known rule, meet with county officials

October 20, 2002|By Amanda Urban | Amanda Urban,SUN STAFF

Some day, Debra Hughes might want to sell her home on 3 acres in Severn.

But she is worried that she won't able to sell it: She learned last year that her house, built in the 1960s, sits on land that was illegally subdivided decades ago.

"I want to be able to sell the property without a noose around its neck," said Hughes, who bought her house in northwest Anne Arundel County nine years ago.

She and the owners of 48 other parcels on and near Meadow, Danza, and Lucky roads received letters in January last year from a developer telling them that their properties were not properly subdivided under county regulations. The developer is building 16 homes nearby. Every home in the county is supposed to be part of a subdivision, which helps the county determine allocations of schools, roads and sewerage.

As required by county law, the developer invited the property owners to join the subdivision. However, residents are concerned about the cost, and are upset that they would be paying for a mistake the county failed to notice for 50 years. Some property owners met last week with county officials to discuss their plight.

"No one wants to spend money," said Dan Kane, the county's development administrator. "We'll continue to look into what they can do."

The confusion began almost two years ago, when the project's planners, Severna Park-based DFI Inc., wrote to inform neighbors of plans to build Westbrooke Subdivision, Section Two -- a planned community of 16 single-family homes to be built on 10 of the 78 acres that were illegally subdivided.

In 1952, the county started requiring property owners who wanted to sell part of their land to go through a subdivision review process. But apparently few in Hughes' neighborhood -- and few county officials -- were aware of this.

DFI advised the property owners that they could join the proposed new subdivision, or potentially face problems selling, insuring or improving their properties.

No one chose to join at that time, although many were concerned about the problems that could arise from owning illegally subdivided land.

On Wednesday, Kane and other county officials met with residents to discuss the problem.

"This is not a rare occurrence," Kane said of the illegal subdivisions, but added that having this many properties involved is unusual.

Kevin Lusby, director of land development at Koch Homes, which is the developer of the project, told property owners that his company isn't trying to pressure them into joining.

"I'm a landowner, just like you," said Lusby, who explained that he wants the land to be legally subdivided so that Westbrooke can be built.

After the meeting, Hughes said she felt better about the developer's plans, but remained uneasy about the status of her home.

"I'm glad to see the county and developers don't have any ready-made solutions, but I'm distressed by the lack of clarity," Hughes said. There was some confusion at the meeting because some of the homeowners who received letters live on land that is legally subdivided. Also, it is possible that some could live in and improve properties on illegally subdivided land without any problems. "I want [county officials] to define the variables and the implications," Hughes said.

Kane played down the potential legal problems. For most property owners, he said, there is no reason to go through the process of making the subdivision legal except to gain peace of mind, or if they plan to apply for a building permit for an improvement on an existing home.

Construction on an unimproved lot could be undertaken only if it were part of a legal subdivision. As for Hughes and her neighbors, an alternative would be to form a subdivision. Kane could not provide an estimate of how much it would cost to join a subdivision, because the cost would be determined by the engineering company chosen, but he suggested that the cost of joining would decrease if more property owners were involved.

The county plans to carry out one suggestion proposed at the meeting: notifying each person who owns illegally subdivided land, and helping each explore his or her options. Kane said that no one has elected to join a subdivision to remedy the problem.

Hughes, however, views that as the only option. "We have to belong to a subdivision," Hughes said. "The question now is which one."

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