Habitat: When Dreams and Land Development Meet by Robert Rauch

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Land development comes in many different types and sizes. Large or small, every project starts with a dream. Those dreams are often complicated with unexpected reality, the reality that any type of land development is complicated and requires the support of many professional consultants. Here are three very different examples of land development.

THE DREAMS

George and Mary Livingston purchased a 20-acre waterfront lot on the Miles River to build their dream home. They thought that all they needed to do was to hire an architect to prepare the house plans and find a contractor to build the house. They quickly learned there was much more to the project and many other businesses and professional services were required to get approval to build their dream home.

James Henry and two of his friends and business associates love the Eastern Shore. They dreamed of owning a waterfront farm that they could use for hunting and fishing for their family and friends. They found the perfect, 200-acre farm with 2,000 feet of unprotected waterfront, 40 acres of marsh, 60 acres of woods and 100 acres of productive farm fields. An existing small historic farmhouse was well suited for a hunting lodge.

There was also deep water and they imagined building a dock and owning several boats. Unfortunately, the cost of the property was higher than they could justify for their personal recreation. The eroding shoreline also presented a future expense that they did not have the financial capabilities to complete. They decided that they should subdivide several lots from the farm to generate income to support the project. They believed that the only professional services they would need to create the lots and make the sales was an attorney, a surveyor, a contractor, and a realtor.

The Jumbo Land Company, a nationally recognized planned community developer, placed an option on four separate contiguous farms to create a 600-acre site for a 1,000 unit mixed use development. The developer hoped to be able to get the necessary permits and approvals to start construction in 2 years. Jumbo is an experienced developer and they assembled a team of local experts to get the desired approvals.

THE REALITY

The Livingston’s discovered that a survey plat is needed to verify the legal status of the lot or parcel planned for their home. This plat is the basis for the creation of a site plan for the house and all related improvements. The plat must also show all environmentally regulate areas, including tidal and non-tidal wetlands, forest limits, easements, right of ways, and buffers. An environmental scientist must verify the wetland limits and confirm all regulated buffers, setbacks and environmental easements. The surveyor will confirm the location of any legal road, utility, pedestrian or other regulatory easements.

The site plan must show the location of the well and septic system. An environmental scientist that specializes in on-site water and wastewater systems must locate and test an approvable sewage reserve area properly sized for the proposed home. The proposed sewage reserve area must be tested and approved by the local Environmental Health Director. A well driller or qualified consultant must obtain a permit to construct a potable well. An approved stormwater management plan must be designed by a qualified civil engineer. A site and grading plan is required for the construction of all of the site improvements that include driveways, fencing, mounding, swales, landscape areas etc. A sediment and erosion control plan is required for the proposed improvements.

Additional design services are required for pools, out-buildings, docks, shore protection and clearing of wooded areas. If the lot is located in the Critical Area, Critical Area Commission approval may be required. Verification of the 100-year flood plain must be completed by a licensed surveyor. If the regulated floodplain line is determined not to be correct, a registered professional surveyor can prepare a Letter of Map Amendment for approval by FEMA. The acceptance of the new flood boundary can then be used for regulatory purposes and lending institution insurance administration. The Livingstons discovered that the entire purchase, design, permitting and approval process could take well over a year to complete. The construction of the house would take another year to be ready to occupy.

Mr. Henry and his associates will require all of the same professional services that the Livingston’s needed for the development of their single-family home. The scope of the services will however be more extensive due to the size of the property and the multiple lots expected to be developed. A lawyer will be required to represent the partners in the regulatory process required for the desired subdivision. The buyers want to reserve all of marshland for hunting waterfowl, thirty acres of woods for deer and small game hunting, and at least 50 acres of the farm field for goose and dove hunting. Rural Countryside zoning limits the size of subdivided lots to a minimum of 20 acres. The land that the buyers want to reserve for their use can be consolidated into a single lot or divided into six or fewer parcels. Four additional residential lots can be created from the residual 80 acres.

A qualified land planner with complete knowledge of local zoning and subdivision regulations should be employed to design the most efficient site plan and subdivision plan to meet the owner’s needs and create lots that are marketable for the highest return. Decisions related to water access, roads, and wildlife pond construction will require the services of a design engineer. Well and septic services will be required on all of the proposed lots, as well as the parcel that the buyers plan to retain. An environmental scientist will be required to determine if individual wells and septic systems or shared facilities are the best water and sewer option for the project. If the best option for water and sewer service is a shared septic system and well, approval from the Maryland Department of the Environment will be required for design and construction approvals.

An engineer will be required to design the collection, treatment and disposal system for the shared wastewater treatment system and treatment for the shared well. An experience lawyer is necessary for the preparation of community rights and responsibility agreements. This agreement will establish the rights and responsibilities associated with access to the water, maintenance and financial obligations associated with share utilities and shared roads for each lot owner.

The buyers should also employ the services of an architectural archaeologist and an architect experienced in historic restorations to determine what can be done to the historic farmhouse. The approval process for this type of project will require meetings with the county planning staff, Planning Commission, Technical Advisory Committee, and the County Commissioners. Environmental groups, and concerned residents can be expected to participate in the public approval process. Permitting and approval of the project took a great deal more time than expected. Testing for the septic approvals were delayed due to groundwater conditions and testing extended into a second year. The public process and mandatory meeting schedules, hearing requirements and appeals extended the time for the approval of the project to over three years.

The Jumbo Land Company is very experienced and typically prepared for the extensive purchase, design, permitting and approval process associated with a major mixed-use development. A qualified land planning firm with experience in designs for the targeted markets is a necessity. A professional consulting firm that offers engineering, surveying, and environmental science must verify the extents of the property and site development constraints that will limit the developable area for the project. Protected habitat must be identified and incorporated into the site design. Public water and sewer are required for this type of project. A qualified professional will be required to study the capacity of the existing utility systems and quantify the impacts of the proposed development. Conceptual designs, will include collection system and right of ways, pumping stations and well locations, water storage needs, electrical service requirements, and on-site and off-site transportation requirements.

Compliance and consistency with the Comprehensive Master Plan and the Master Water and Sewer Plan is required for review and approval of all aspects of the project. A qualified land development lawyer, the land planner and the engineering team must work together to obtain the required plan revisions to support the project. Stormwater management concept plans should be completed and incorporated into the concept development plan. The public approval process for this type of project is extensive and time consuming. A large investment must be made at-risk to simply prepare a concept suitable for public review and approval. Financing considerations should take into account the long approval process and at-risk investments. A consultant experienced with grant and loan funding can assist in assuring the financial feasibility of the project. Studies, designs, permitting, financing and the public approval process extended over five years. Appeals from opponents and uncooperative public bodies further delayed the start of the project. Fortunately the Jumbo Land Company was not unaccustomed to this type of project timing and was able to survive the delays and start the project.

The names and properties used in the examples are fictional and intended to illustrate typical development scenarios that might be encountered on the Eastern Shore. The description of services and processes related to each type of development are representative of many of the professional services a land developer requires.

Robert Rauch, P.E. is the President of RAUCH inc., a civil engineering, survey, architectural and construction management firm based in Easton, Md. Bob is a Registered Professional Engineer in Maryland, Delaware and Virginia. He serves on the Board of Regents for the University System of Maryland, the Board of Directors for the University of Maryland Medical System, and The Board of Visitors of University of Maryland, A. J. Clark School of Engineering, Dept. of Civil & Environmental Engineering. In 2016 RAUCH inc. was recognized as Talbot County’s Small Business of the Year. Bob was also recognized in 2017 as Talbot County’s Businessman of the Year.

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