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Opinion

April 10. 2014 10:52PM

Real Estate Corner: It’s time to increase the transparency for property owners

Imagine you’re the owner of 10 acres of land, and your long-standing plan has been to subdivide that parcel, perhaps providing for a child’s college education or your own retirement. The time comes, and you’re prepared to move forward, when you learn that, without your knowledge, the property has been rezoned, and is no longer able to be subdivided. Perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in value have been lost.

For most, the purchase of property will be the biggest investment they ever make. Not only can a home’s equity fund education or couple’s retirement, but an investment property could be the income stream a family depends on to pay its bills. So a town’s zoning change, no matter how well intended, can dramatically impact that investment.

Too much is at stake to allow for the possibility of a property owner being blindsided, and yet for too many property owners, the scenario is all too possible under current state law.

The New Hampshire Association of Realtors, with the help of a bipartisan group of state legislators, has introduced a bill designed to help property owners in the state be better notified in the event of pending zoning amendments that could affect their property rights.

As established in 1983, RSA 675:7 currently requires such notification prior to a public hearing to be published in a newspaper of general circulation in the municipality and posted in at least two public places.

Senate Bill 228 would add an element of far more practical communication: a requirement that with certain proposed zoning changes, written notification is mailed to all potentially affected property owners in a district, with an explanation as to what the proposed changes are and the date of the public hearing.

Makes sense, right?

When the Legislature passed the existing requirement in 1983, everyone communicated a little differently. We used pay phones, not cell phones. We read actual newspapers, not tablets or Twitter. We paid our car registration at the town hall, not online. So perhaps in 1983 it may have been reasonable to assume that a property owner could have knowledge of a hearing based on an ad or notice at the town hall, but that is not true today.

How many of us are aware of what is on our town planning committee’s agenda this week? How many of us are perusing the bulletin board of our town office on a weekly basis? Is it reasonable to assume that every property owner should or needs to do this? And if I read my paper online, how would I ever see a notice buried in a Saturday paper?

The consequences of amending current zoning ordinances, while often justified, can be a significant cost to the homeowner, as it might diminish the value of his or her property. Altering a zoning district which may have been in place for decades, without a municipality ensuring that those impacted could have a reasonable opportunity to voice their thoughts, seems wrong.

Realtors understand that some are concerned that the cost would be too much of a burden for a town, but would most property owners gladly pay a dollar or two in order to be assured that they will be made aware of changes to the town rules regarding how they can utilize their own property? We think the answer is certainly yes.

The number one public policy concern we consistently hear at NHAR from our members is with regard to municipal regulations. Recently, the New Hampshire Business and Industry Association identified as part of its Strategic Economic Plan that New Hampshire has the fourth most restrictive local land use regulations in the country. The New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority conducted focus groups of real estate professionals within the last six months, and they also identified land use regulations as a top concern. Keeping up with all the zoning changes is hard enough for professionals, never mind for busy homeowners.

We are not in uncharted territory with this bill. Oregon, for example, has required mailed notification of all zoning changes since 1999 — a ballot initiative which, by the way, passed with 80 percent of the vote. Amendments to zoning ordinances are offered and passed, just as in New Hampshire, except that property owners in Oregon are much more aware of what is happening in their communities.

As Realtors, we have a four-page property disclosure form and a five-page purchase and sales agreement, and many of the items included are mandated by state or federal regulations and state statutes, which help guide the buyer through the purchase process and guarantees openness and transparency in the transaction. It ensures that the property owner has the best chance of being fully informed.

And that is what SB 228 does. It protects a resident from being blindsided, it creates greater openness in our public meetings, and it assures a property owner’s right to protect his or her greatest asset.



.

Lynne Merrill is a broker the Merrill Bartlett Group in Kingston and chair of the New Hampshire Association of Realtors Public Policy Committee, which represents New Hampshire’s 5,000 Realtors.

This information has been provided by the New Hampshire Association of Realtors in conjunction with the New Hampshire Union Leader’s Advertising Department. Readers with questions about the content, or who wish to pose a question for a column, can contact NHAR communications director Dave Cummings at 225-5549 or dave@nhar.com.




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