Baltimore County weighs law to protect homebuyers from shocks


Paul Henkelman wondered when he moved into his Perry Hall community five years ago why the street in front of his house was a strapping 50 feet wide.

Four years later, after he saw surveyors along Gunview Road and began to ask questions, he found out.

The county planned to extend the quiet, dead-end street and turn it into a highway for motorists seeking an alternative to Belair Road.

"I was on the verge of moving, and I wasn't the only one," said Mr. Henkelman, 38, a supervisor for the Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co. "A lot of people were really upset."

Mr. Henkelman joined with neighbors to persuade county elected officials to reverse plans for the road extension.

Instances like this of newly arrived residents being surprised by changes in their communities have prompted Councilman Vincent Gardina, D-5th, to introduce a bill requiring home sellers to warn prospective buyers that they should check with county planning agencies to see what's in store for the neighborhood before signing a contract.

The measure, which is scheduled to be discussed at the council's May 28 session and voted on June 3, would require a seller to advise a buyer in writing that the property "may be affected by provisions of the master plan and that he may wish to review the master plan."

The notice, which the buyer would have to sign as part of the sales contract, also advises the buyer that "to become fully informed of current and future land use plans, facility plans, public works plans, school plans or other plans affecting the property or area, he should consult the appropriate county agency for information."

Failure to include such a statement would allow the buyer to cancel the contract, according to the bill.

Mr. Gardina said the bill is an attempt to make sure that people who buy homes are alerted beforehand to impending changes in roads, schools, open space and water and sewer service in their new communities.

"All I'm trying to do is make sure people are aware of the issues and the consequences of any development before they move into a community," said Mr. Gardina, a first-term council member.

Homebuyer protection measures have been enacted in at least two other jurisdictions.

The Howard County Council enacted a bill April 3 requiring sellers to provide prospective buyers with the county's General Plan maps that show development patterns.

In Montgomery County, a 1974 law requires buyers to sign a contract addition that says the seller has offered them the opportunity to review the applicable master plan and municipal land-use plan, has told them there may be amendments pending affecting those plans and has either reviewed each plan and amendment or waives the right to review them.

But Mr. Gardina's bill faces stiff opposition from the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, who are concerned that it will mean needless paperwork and will confuse buyers, delay sales and reduce values in some neighborhoods.

"We are four-square opposed to this bill," said Joseph McGraw, director of government relations for the 4,300-member group.

Mr. McGraw said that standard sales contracts already alert buyers that the purchase of a home is a big step that may require them to consult an attorney.

State and federal laws also require myriad disclosures about issues ranging from lead paint and radon gas to fire-retardant plywood, which can intimidate buyers and complicate sales contracts with up to five pages of finely worded print, he said.

"Buyers are not pressured into buying. It's common sense that you need to check things out," he said.

He said that he is writing this week to Mr. Gardina to express the group's opposition to the bill.

He intends to send copies of the letter to the county's six other council members and plans to start meeting early next week with them and with representatives from County Executive Roger B. Hayden's office to fight the proposal.

"We've decided that the time has come to draw the line in the sand and say, no more disclosures," he said.

At least one member of the council is already opposed.

Councilman William A. Howard IV, R-6th, a real estate broker, said the law would needlessly complicate the home sales process and put unfair liability on sellers and their agents.

"To this point, I haven't seen a benefit to the buyers that makes it worthwhile," he said.

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