Dazzled by his spacious new house in an upscale Owings Mills neighborhood, Mark Seals could hardly wait to move in. But the investment counselor was shocked by what he saw at the settlement table: maps showing a long-planned, four-lane road running straight through his community, virtually sideswiping his house.
"I said, 'Huh? What is this?' " recalls Seals, 31. Still, he went through with his purchase. "At settlement you're happy to be getting a home. You think it's too late to back out. You're just there to sign the papers."
Now, three years later, Seals and his neighbors in the Lyonswood community are finding that when it comes to buying a home, what you don't know can hurt you.
They say no builders or sales agents told them that an extension of Owings Mills Boulevard would one day barrel through their placid neighborhood, and they never checked the array of public records that would have revealed the plans.
As plans for the road edge forward, their predicament illustrates the importance of homebuyers doing their homework -- even as it highlights the ethical and legal responsibilities of real estate agents and home builders. From Cockeysville, where homebuyers got a water tower instead of a wooded area, to Howard County, where residents saw vacant strips blacktopped for roads, many are outraged to discover that not all greenspaces are destined to stay that way.
Officials, however, are sometimesastounded by complaints.
"What did you think that 300-foot swath right in the middle of your subdivision is there for? It's not a linear park," says Joseph W. Rutter Jr., Howard County's director of planning and zoning, recalling his reaction to some of the grousing he's heard.
"They'll check every consumer report for the past three years to buy a $15,000 car, but they'll impulse-buy a $150,000 house."
When they lead with their hearts, homebuyers can be left disappointed and angry, planners in the Baltimore area say.
"People are infatuated with the model home they have seen," says Arden C. Holdredge, Harford County director of planning and zoning. "Remember when you were 16 and fell in love for the first time? It's an infatuation similar to that."
Complaints are particularly common in fast-growing suburbs. People seek out new homes and open spaces -- but find that roads and stores quickly follow.
Recently, for example, some homeowners in a new neighborhood in the Forest Hill section of Harford County discovered that the "community business" zoning designation on nearby lot permits a supermarket. Initially outraged, residents have accepted the inevitable and are working with developers to ease potential traffic problems, Holdredge says.
Three years ago, some Carroll County homebuyers gambled that a long-dormant road project would never be built in the Heritage Heights neighborhood in Eldersburg. Others, like Mary Arther, had no idea that the road had been included in the county's master plan for nearly 30 years.
"This being our first house, I never even knew there was a master plan," says Arther, adding that residents have been told that their bid to halt the road "was too late."
Some homebuyers even dismiss obvious signs of change. In Howard, some bought homes near an unopened section of Route 32 that was already paved. When the road opened, they complained about the noisy traffic. "Why do you think the lots were cheaper?" Rutter, the Howard planner, says he was tempted to ask.
In Cockeysville, plans for the Abbey at Sherwood community showed that a lot would be deeded to Baltimore County for use as a water tower. But homebuyers say the builder's sales agent told them the land would remain a "forest buffer" or "bird sanctuary."
Residents complained to the state department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which licenses real estate brokers. The department is investigating, says spokeswoman Karen Napolitano.
By law, real estate agents must tell potential buyers pertinent information that they know -- or should reasonably be expected to know -- or risk losing their license, says Billie D. Landbeck, a real estate agent in Harford County and chairwoman of the state real estate commission.
Agents for homebuilders generally are not licensed real estate brokers, but their actions are regulated by laws against unfair business practices, says Rebecca G. Bowman, a lawyer in the consumer protection division of the state attorney general's office.
But it can be difficult to prove intentional deception. Landbeck advises homebuyers to conduct their own investigations. A good place to start is in the county planning office, where officials can help homebuyers decipher master plans, maps and charts.
Gilbert D. Marsiglia, president of the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, adds, "A standard response I have to any buyer is, 'If you see a piece of vacant land, you know it isn't going to stay vacant. If what might happen is a concern to you, let's go down to the county courthouse and check it out.' "
Baltimore County law requires sellers to advise buyers to review the county's master plan and to check with county agencies for information on projects. Howard County has a similar law.
In Lyonswood, residents have convinced their county councilman that they were misled by builders, who they say either failed to reveal the road plans or played down the possibility that the road would be built as planned.
"Too many of them have looked me in the eye and said they were not shown anything about that road," says Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a Glyndon Republican. He plans to introduce legislation requiring that any map of a development show major projects such as planned roads.
Road plans disclosed
Kevin Kerwin, an official at Ryan Homes, which was one of two builders at Lyonswood, says sales agents volunteered information about the road project and gave prospective buyers a diagram of the neighborhood showing the road's path.
Had Lyonswood residents checked Baltimore County records, they would have found plenty of information.
The $5.5 million Owings Mills Boulevard extension has been included in the county's budget planning process since 1978. It was described in the 1984 Owings Mills plan and in the county's 1990 master plan. A land plat filed in 1990 shows the Lyonswood plan -- and the 84-foot-wide path labeled as the future boulevard.
"We have to continue on with the plan, as we do with all our plans in the county," says Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. "The plans were there before these homes were even built. That's very relevant."
Cuts between homes
Still, Seals, president of the Lyonswood community association, is leading a campaign to convince officials that the road's heavy traffic would shake the foundations of a stable neighborhood -- a peaceful, racially diverse enclave where houses sell for more than $200,000. The four-lane road would slice between clusters of houses and cross a lane where children ride bicycles.
County officials say it will provide a crucial link between Liberty Road and the Owings Mills Town Center in the fast-growing area.
Says Arnold F. "Pat" Keller, Baltimore County's planning director: "My heart goes out, but on the other hand if people sit in traffic they start complaining about that. How do you balance all that? If you've been to McDonogh Road near Liberty Road at rush hour, your heart would go out to those people too."
"If they were going to put in a four-laner, why did they put a subdivision in there?" said Sandy Bell, who with her husband bought a home in Lyonswood two years ago.
While vowing to continue to fight, Lyonswood resident Wayne Cook regrets not initially pursuing details about the road that might pass within a couple of hundred feet of his home.
"We were excited about buying a house and it just went by," Cook says, "I did learn one lesson. Next time, I'll check the master plan."
Where to find help
Prospective homebuyers seeking information on projects that might affect their purchase can secure information from public documents and government officials. Those sources include: Your city or county planning office. Officials say this is the best place to start for information on roads projects and on the zoning regulations that govern development.
The land records section of your local courthouse. Legally binding property maps known as "record plats" show right-of-ways for future roads or other public works projects.
Other government offices. For instance, state and county highway planners can explain future road projects. Files at a county's development review division often include detailed maps of planned subdivisions and commercial ventures, as well as agreements between developers and county officials that cover roads, sewers and other public works improvements.
Your local library. Most have copies of the master plan governing development within a county.
Pub Date: 6/15/98