ALTA Land Title Changes Taking Effect

by Michael Kreiger, P.L.S.

Surveyors

The American Land Title Association (ALTA) and the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) have recently released their final approved revisions to the ALTA Land Title Survey Standards.  These standards will become effective on February 23, 2016.

How will the new 2016 ALTA Land Title Survey Standards impact your projects?

The impact is more evolutionary than revolutionary: minor tweaks to enhance the reassurance a land title survey provides a buyer or lender.

While the 2011 standards were a major rewrite of previous standards, the 2016 version is mainly just a series of clarifications that help real estate professionals and developers better understand the information the surveys provide (and don’t provide).

For example, the new standards clearly define the surveyor’s role in researching title, property records, easements, etc., and the role of the survey purchaser in providing that information. Similarly, the new standards require that a zoning letter or report be provided to the surveyor before they can address zoning issues like zoning classification, setback requirements, height and floor space area restrictions, and parking requirements.

More significantly, the new standards clarify what a surveyor can show regarding wetlands on a Land Title Survey. The presence of wetlands can have a major impact on the way a site is developed, so it is understandably a major interest to those purchasing a property.  In the past, some have mistakenly believed that a survey which reported no observation of wetland markers indicated there were no wetlands present on the site. However, only a qualified biologist can certify that a site is free of wetlands; a surveyor merely reports the observation of wetland delineation markers.

Though this fact can be inferred from the 2011 standards, which included the location of wetlands “as delineated by appropriate authorities,” the 2016 revision is more clear-cut:

“If there has been a field delineation of wetlands conducted by a qualified specialist hired by the client, the surveyor shall locate any delineation markers observed in the process of conducting the fieldwork and show them on the face of the plat or map. If no markers were observed, the surveyor shall so state.”

Since this item is an optional item in Table A, anyone purchasing a property who is interested in the presence of wetlands on the site should hire a qualified specialist to investigate them and specifically negotiate this item into their survey contract. (Some firms, like HRG, have qualified environmental professionals on staff to provide these wetland investigations services as part of the survey.)

In some cases, the 2016 revisions ensure that the information provided in the survey documents is more accurate and complete. For example:

  • Observed utility features are now mandatory, rather than an optional item in Table A.
  • Surveyors will now merely indicate the observation of substantial areas of refuse at a site, rather than being asked to designate the site as a solid waste dump, sump or sanitary landfill. (Again, this is an optional item in Table A, so anyone requesting this information should negotiate it into their survey contract.)

When you purchase a land title survey, you are essentially purchasing peace of mind: that you clearly understand exactly what you will own and what ways you will be able to use the site once it’s purchased. The new 2016 ALTA Land Title Survey Standards enhance that peace of mind by making sure surveyors have the information they need to accurately characterize a site and that the information they provide in the final survey documents is clearly understood by the client. The revisions contained in these new standards tighten the language and remove any confusion buyers, lenders, and insurers might have had about what the survey documents show. They also ensure a uniform level of accuracy in the information the surveyors provide and the methodology they use to gather and report results.  By doing so, they strengthen the reassurance these documents offer a buyer about the likelihood of regulatory burdens, liabilities, or potential claims to the property by another party.

If you have questions about the new 2016 ALTA Land Title Survey Standards, please contact Michael Kreiger by email at mKreiger@hrg-inc.com or by phone at (717) 564-1121.


Michael Kreiger, P.L.S., Kreigerhas 23 years of experience as a surveyor, including ample experience completing ALTA Land Title Surveys for commercial and industrial properties. Other survey experience includes topographic boundary surveys, construction stakeout, and aerial ground control.

HRG is a full service consulting firm with capabilities in surveying, environmental compliance (including wetland investigations), permitting, site design, and construction inspection and administration.

Form-Based Zoning Can Bring Municipalities and Developers Together on the Walkable Communities Buyers Want

Photo by North Charleston.  Published here under a Creative Commons license.Walkable Community

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) recently released the results of a nationwide poll showing millennials increasingly prefer walkable communities over the spread-out developments in many present-day suburbs. Other studies have confirmed similar preferences for walkable neighborhoods and mixed-use development; however, traditional zoning approaches, which emphasize low-density development and a separation of land uses, makes it difficult for residential developers to obtain approval for these communities. This article explores the rise in popularity of the walkable community and discusses how residential developers and municipal planners can use form-based zoning to create a community that meets the needs of everyone.

The Case for Walkable Communities

In 2013, NAR’s Community Preference Survey found that 60% of respondents preferred a neighborhood that mixes housing with stores and businesses within walking distance, and 55% would give up a home with a bigger yard in order to get one within walking distance of schools, stores and restaurants.

Additionally, a study by Gary Pivo at the University of Arizona’s Urban Planning Program and Jeffrey Fisher at Indiana University’s Kelly School of Business found that – other factors being equal – enhanced walkability increased the value of both residential and commercial properties.  Using data from the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries and Walk Score, they compared more than 4,000 office, apartment, retail and industrial properties and determined that a 10% increase in walkability increased property value by up to 9% for all but the industrial properties.  (There was no discernible impact on industrial properties with a higher walkability score.)

This is in line with other studies of traditional neighborhood developments (TND) published in Real Estate Economics and the Journal of Urban Economics, which found that buyers were willing to pay between 12-15% more for pedestrian-friendly homes in the studied neighborhoods, compared to similar homes in neighboring low-density communities.

Increased property values benefit the developer selling the home, but they also benefit the local municipality as they increase property tax revenues. In addition, high density, walkable communities reduce the amount of infrastructure (such as roadways, traffic signals, water and sewer line extensions) needed to connect spread-out developments, which can save the  municipality money that would’ve been needed to maintain that infrastructure.

The most important reason for municipalities to consider making their zoning friendlier to walkable communities, however, might be their desire to stay competitive as a place people want to live.

Millennials represent a demographic of 80 million people, and they are the generation that will be buying homes and putting down roots in the years to come. Michael Myers, a managing director at The Rockefeller Foundation, is quoted in an article on The Atlantic’s CityLab website, saying, “As we move from a car-centric model of mobility to a nation that embraces more sustainable transportation options, millennials are leading the way…Cities that don’t invest in [these options] stand to lose out in the long run.” 

Bridging the Municipal-Developer Gap with Form-Based Zoning

If municipalities and developers agree that walkable communities can be beneficial, why aren’t more of them being built?

Over the past few years, these communities have become more and more popular with both developers and municipalities, but acceptance still is not widespread. Traditional zoning ordinances could be one of the reasons why.

Traditional zoning ordinances separate land uses into distinct zones: Commercial is separate from residential. Single family homes are separate from apartments and townhomes, etc.  This prevents the construction of developments that combine commercial and residential uses of different types in one space like modern walkable communities do. In addition, traditional zoning has emphasized a low-density approach because communities associate higher density with a loss of open space and community character and fear higher density developments will drain community resources.  However, developers require a higher density approach in order to make the many amenities (such as recreational facilities and civic and commercial spaces) affordable in a typical walkable community plan.

But form-based zoning could be the bridge that closes the gap between a community’s concerns and a developer’s needs.

Rather than fixating on density values and strict land use definitions, municipalities using a form-based zoning approach create a vision for the type of community they’d like to have and set standards to realize that vision.  If they want a community that encourages walking and social interaction in public spaces, they can set standards that will promote these activities.  For example,  Public Space standards can specify the types of pedestrian amenities, greenspaces and recreation requirements that make a place feel safe, comfortable and walkable.  They can also set the size of a standard block and govern how roadways and pedestrian amenities interconnect.  (Keeping the size of blocks small will make them more manageable for walkers, and interconnecting streets will provide shorter routes and more evenly distribute car traffic throughout the roadway network.  This will, in turn, have the added benefit of reducing congestion that comes from concentrating cars on just a few heavily travelled corridors, as is common in many traditionally zoned communities today.)

By using a form-based approach, municipalities can focus more on the form and feel of a community, instead of limiting development to strictly separated zones with a one-size-fits-all regulation of lot sizes.

In turn, residents enjoy the quality of life they seek, and municipalities can continue to attract growth, maintain a healthy tax base, and reduce the expenses associated with sprawling infrastructure. Meanwhile developers are able to meet a market demand profitably without navigating an unnecessarily lengthy entitlements process.

This type of approach allows communities to remain relevant and competitive in the decades to come as millennials age, take their resources and preferences to market, have kids and nurture the next generation. Municipalities and developers that dismiss these trends as merely a fad may be taking a big risk. Is it worth it?  We will know in 20 years.


HRG excels at bringing developers and municipalities together to meet the needs of a community in a way that benefits all parties. To discuss how walkable communities could benefit you, please contact us

Act 162 (Riparian Buffer Equivalency) May Unintentionally Hinder Developers

by: Christopher Dellinger, P.E., and Charles Suhr, Esq.

Stream

Last October, Act 162 was passed to amend Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law, and the land development industry rejoiced. It appeared that the requirement to provide a riparian buffer for stormwater management when developing properties adjacent to a High Quality or Exceptional Value stream was being changed to allow property owners more flexibility. This enhanced flexibility could result in the use of equally effective stormwater management techniques that would use less of the parcel, thus freeing up a greater percentage of the property for profitable use.

Now that the PA Department of Environmental Protection has begun to release its technical guidance on how the law will be applied (Implementation Plan Guidance, Riparian Buffer Equivalency Guidance, Buffer Offset Requirements Guidance], some developers and property owners are worried the legislation may, in fact, do more harm than good.

This may come as a shock to organizations like the Pennsylvania Builders Association that voiced strong support for the legislation. PBA and others in the development and construction industry felt the previous requirements of the Clean Streams Law had been too restrictive, but sometimes the devil you don’t know is more dangerous than the one you do. And, as always, the devil is in the details.

Act 162 offers other options besides riparian buffers for stormwater management in protected watersheds
Under the original law, earth disturbances were prohibited within 150 feet of rivers, streams, creeks, lakes, ponds or reservoirs in a High Quality or Exceptional Value watershed. Instead, this 150-foot-wide strip of land had to contain vegetation that helped to protect the watershed by providing shade and shelter for small creatures and filtering pollutants from stormwater runoff before it reached the special protected waters. This requirement was enforced as part of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting process.

 But, setting aside a 150-foot-wide strip of land along the entire length of a protected water, could potentially result in a significant portion of a parcel being unusable (and the revenue earning potential of a site significantly decreased as a result).

Under Act 162, holders of an NPDES construction permit have greater flexibility. If their parcel contains land within 150 feet of a protected water, they can choose another stormwater Best Management Practice technique for controlling pollution as long as they can prove it is “substantially equivalent” to the buffer. Other techniques might result in a smaller loss of land than the buffer, thus increasing the economic potential of a site.

So how could this law be anything but beneficial to land developers?

Act 162 may extend protection to other water bodies not previously covered by the Clean Streams Law
The original Clean Streams Law was very careful to spell out exactly what waters required a riparian buffer; these included all high quality or exceptional value perennial or intermittent rivers, streams, or creeks, lakes, ponds or reservoirs.

Act 162 maintains the previous list of waters for determining when buffers or a substantially equivalent BMPs are required. However, in addition to requiring buffering or a substantially equivalent BMP for earth disturbance within 150-feet of the waters listed above, the law goes on to require replacement buffers (or offsetting) for any earth disturbance that occurs within 100-feet of a “surface water.” Note that this new section refers to “surface waters,” which, under current DEP regulations, is defined to include not just the waters listed above but also wetlands.

WetlandsIs it possible that development within 100 feet of wetlands within a High Quality or Exceptional Value watershed will now require replacement buffers somewhere else?

This was not the case under the previous legislation, and it could force many developers to rethink their site plans.

For example, one company developing an industrial park designed its site to maintain a 150-foot buffer from an existing high-quality stream crossing its property.  Many sections of this stream contain wetland areas adjacent to the stream.  Most of these wetlands are located within the 150-foot buffer; however, some are not.  While care was taken to avoid impacts to these wetlands, the development did propose earth disturbance close to the wetlands.  No buffers, equivalent BMPs or replacement buffers were provided because no such requirement existed at that time.  With plans for later phases still in development, the company is wondering whether it will need to provide additional buffers, equivalent BMPs, or replacement buffers now and how much square footage they may lose as a result.

The wording of Act 162 has also been interpreted by some to extend BMP requirements to all waters, not just those in High Quality or Exceptional Value watersheds.  The Chesapeake Bay Foundation of Pennsylvania, for example, submitted a letter to DEP stating:

“The plain language of Section 402(c)(1) states that ‘…persons proposing or conducting earth disturbance activities when the activity requires a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System [(“NPDES”)] permit for storm water discharge…’ may install either a forested riparian buffer or a substantially equivalent alternative to ensure compliance with water quality standards. There is no mention of this only occurring in special protection waters. The only mention of EV/HQ watersheds, comes in Section 402(c)(2) of the law with regard to the need to ‘offset’ activities within 100 feet of a special protection water.

The failure to clearly state that buffers, or their functional equivalent, are only needed in EV/HQ watersheds where an NPDES permit is needed, while specifically mentioning the EV/HQ requirement in Section 402(c)(2), suggests a specific legal intent by the General Assembly. CBF contends that buffers or their substantial equivalent alternatives are now required wherever NPDES permits are to be issued for such activities.”

If such an approach were taken by DEP, many more parcels would be affected by this law than initially thought. Instead of allowing flexibility in design, the new law could actually create additional regulatory hurdles.

Ambiguous wording about “substantially equivalent” stormwater management techniques could cause delay in the approval process
Many questions still remain about how this law will be applied. Even the option to use “substantially equivalent” stormwater Best Management Practices in lieu of riparian buffers is quite vague. What will be accepted as “substantially equivalent”? Developers who are under pressure to build as quickly as possible do not want to spend time on ambiguity, proposing measures that may ultimately be denied. As a result, they may choose to set aside riparian buffers anyway to speed up the review process and may now need to do more than what was previously required.

Rather than opening up more land to development, the law could unintentionally restrict development even more.

Thankfully, PA DEP issued its initial technical guidance on the buffer equivalency policy and opened a public comment period to give everyone affected by the law a chance to ask questions like these. Comments were accepted until May 20, 2015.

We look forward to seeing how DEP responds to these comments and the questions Act 162 is raising.


Chris DellingerChristopher Dellinger, P.E., is the manager of HRG’s Land Development Service Group.  As such, he oversees the completion of all commercial, industrial, and residential land development projects completed by the firm throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region.  He has 17 years of experience in land development and site design, with a particular emphasis on commercial and industrial construction.

Charles SuhrCharles Suhr, Esq., is a real estate lawyer at Stevens & Lee. He represents landowners and developers in obtaining municipal approvals for residential, commercial and industrial developments and appears before local planning commissions, governing bodies and zoning hearing boards throughout south central Pennsylvania.