Real Estate

Finding the Perfect Site Is Just the Start

Five steps to help you turn a land development vision into a reality.

Finding the perfect location on which to build a facility to house operations may seem like the most challenging part of a project. After all, selecting and acquiring the right property can be difficult, particularly in today’s market, where many of the sites that remain available have features that make them problematic to develop.

Finding the right property, however, is only the first step in the process. Once that’s done, it will be important to overcome various barriers before achieving the ultimate goal: receipt of all of the state and municipal approvals necessary to pull a building permit and begin construction. So, once the ideal site for a project has been found, you can then take the following five steps to help ensure that the envisioned facility can quickly become a reality.

1. Assemble the right team

Having the right professionals to support the project is paramount to its success. Nearly every project team will include a real estate broker, a landscape architect, a building architect, a contractor and an experienced land use attorney. Some projects may require specialists in other fields, such as transportation planning or environmental engineering. When selecting the team, make sure to look for professionals who work regularly in the region where the property is located. For example, in south-central Pennsylvania, karst geology, which often results in the formation of sinkholes, is prevalent. Local landscape architects are familiar with this condition and know how to design around it, particularly with respect to managing storm water. Likewise, local land use counsel will have relationships with the municipal officials who will be reviewing and approving your project, and will be able to anticipate and maneuver through local “hot-button” issues.

2. Identify land use restrictions

Land use restrictions primarily emanate from two sources: the property’s chain of title and municipal ordinances. A thorough review of each is essential to ensure that all possible barriers to development are identified early in the land planning process. When reviewing the title search, pay particular attention to any easements affecting the property or any use restrictions noted in a deed or on a subdivision plan (e.g., that the property may be used and conveyed for residential purposes only). While there are ways to eliminate either type of restriction if necessary, doing so can be a lengthy and cost-intensive process. In addition, these types of restrictions, if undiscovered, can give a foothold to objectors for use in challenging a controversial project.

If adjustments to the land development plan need to be made, it is beneficial to make the changes as early in the process as possible, preferably before plans have been shared publicly. With respect to municipal ordinances, make sure you have engaged in a thorough and complete review of municipal zoning, subdivision and land development, and storm water management ordinances. Many projects require some type of zoning relief, whether it is a variance, a special exception or conditional use approval. Some larger-scale projects may merit an amendment to the zoning ordinance itself or a preliminary opinion from the zoning officer.

Finally, once you’ve determined what types of relief are necessary, map out a timeline for obtaining the needed approvals.

3. Evaluate the environment

Take a close look at the site and identify any barriers to development. Are there environmental issues that require remediation? Is the property affected by a floodplain or wetlands? Does the shape or configuration of the lot itself present challenges? In addition, determine whether the necessary infrastructure is in place to support the project. Are adjacent roadways sufficient to serve any increase in traffic caused by your use? Will your property require a permit for access to a state road? Is the property served by public water, sewer and other utilities – and if not, can it easily be connected? Will it be necessary to obtain any easements over adjacent properties for utilities, construction of an access drive or discharge of storm water? Identify potential problems and engage the appropriate professionals to develop solutions. Identification of issues prior to formal plan submission will save time and expense.

4. Talk to the neighbors

The support of your neighbors is critical to your success. No municipal official wants to approve a project over public outcry; it’s much easier to get the yes you are after if no one opposes your project (or better yet, if some of your neighbors support it). Talk to the owners of the properties directly adjacent to your site, and to any other landowners that will be affected by the proposed development. Sometimes concerns arise from misinformation, or from a lack of information, about the project. Perhaps your neighbors are worried about an increase in traffic, but you will be adding a turning lane or installing a traffic light to support the proposed use. Maybe there are questions about lighting, noise, odor or other potential impacts of your facility. Once again, sharing information about your hours of operation or equipment used to lessen these impacts may allay concerns.

Of course, even low-impact projects can encounter objections. In these circumstances, make sure you listen to the concerns that are expressed – don’t assume that you know what is important to an individual, family or neighboring business. Perhaps you will be able to reach an agreement as to how your neighbor’s concerns will be addressed. If you cannot, municipal officials will, at minimum, want to hear that you made the effort to reach out, even if it ultimately proves to be unsuccessful.

5. Consider the community

Land development doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes place in the context of a community that has its own unique strengths, challenges, needs and values. As you present your project – whether to municipal officials or your next-door neighbor – make sure you are highlighting what the project has to offer and how it will fit within the fabric of the community. For example, will you be making much-needed roadway or intersection improvements as a part of the development of the site? Will your project create new jobs, or retain existing ones? Will it provide a needed boost to the tax base (perhaps without creating a commensurate demand for additional services)? Focus on the benefits and promote your project.

Keep in mind that while no two land development projects are the same, many encounter similar challenges. While taking the foregoing five steps won’t guarantee success, it will put your client in the best possible position to obtain the approvals necessary to break ground and begin construction.

Mark Stanley is a member in McNees’ Real Estate practice group. He is an active member of the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, legal community, practicing in the area of real estate law, with a particular focus on zoning, land use and land development matters. He represents local, regional and national development clients in South Central Pennsylvania. Reach him at [email protected].

Claudia Shank is an associate in McNees’ Lancaster, Pennsylvania, office, where she practices in the Real Estate group. She represents individuals and developers before municipal entities in land use and land development matters. She also assists her clients in obtaining zoning relief, including variance, special exception and conditional use approvals. Reach her at [email protected].

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