Buyer beware: 3 clues your neighborhood is destined for commercial development

Buyer beware: 3 clues your neighborhood is destined for commercial development

CHARLOTTE, NC ( Anna Douglas | The Charlotte Observer) - A surge in commercial development around Charlotte means house hunters may need to dig a little deeper than before to avoid locations primed for high-density construction.

Even if you check local zoning regulations that control how land can be used and you don't see obvious signs of construction, it's still easy to miss subtle signs that a shopping center or new apartment complex could be going up nearby.

Sometimes clues to pending development lie hidden in rarely-checked local planning board meeting minutes and other public records – resources that real estate agents, sellers and buyers don't always consider.

Leslie and Tony Quatrini of Mooresville found that out. They moved into a house on Lake Norman this month figuring they'd found a quiet street, serviced by an old country road next door to 140 acres of farm land. Then they learned from neighbors about a proposed "mixed-use" development that would transform the area with new shops, office space, restaurants, and as many as 600 condos and apartments, 120 townhomes, and 115 single-family houses.

It's not just around Lake Norman where some homeowners are on edge about mixed-use developments – where developers build shops, office space and restaurants right next door to houses and apartments. A similar pattern is unfolding along the I-485 loop to the south, inspiring some local leaders there to push for significant transit upgrades before large development projects are approved.

So if you're buying a home in these rapidly growing areas, how do you avoid a surprise? Here are three things to look for:

1. Vacant land

When shopping for a home, some clues of future development are in plain sight: zoning changes, site grading on vacant land, or public notice signs for proposed projects. Typical due diligence, too, may provide hints because North Carolina law requires that real estate agents and sellers disclose relevant development information about adjacent properties.

Still, experts recommend prospective home buyers do their own research.

In a seller's market, especially, some home buyers tend to rush through the steps to beat out other offers, says Cynthia Ruen, a real estate agent with SouthPark's Re/Max Executive.

A house is often a life-long or long-term investment.

"You have to be more active other than just getting approved for a loan," Ruen said.

In the case of the proposed development on Lake Norman, dozens of residents in nearby subdivisions are protesting and some say they've been blindsided.

Yet, more than a year ago, the developer dropped a hint of what was coming when he asked town officials for permission to extend water and sewer lines to the large, vacant tract near the lake. The request and the property address were recorded in public records as early as February 2016.

Although that original request was ultimately delayed and didn't come back up until April 2017, the developer's initial interest in putting costly utility lines on vacant land was a clear sign development could be on the way.

In many towns and cities, a utility extension request is recorded on a meeting agenda or meeting minutes and the information is readily available online. In other cases, a call to a the municipality's planning department will yield that information.

"We get those kind of calls all the time," says Jason Burdette, planning director for the town of Davidson. "We can generally say 'This is the vision,' with some caveats."

First, use a free "geographic information system" website like Mecklenburg County's Polaris or Iredell County's GIS to get the vacant property's physical address and tax map parcel ID number. Then, search for that exact location on the city or town of jurisdiction's website and see if it's been mentioned during public meetings for rezonings, utility services or annexation.

"If you see on a land parcel map large tracts of land (50+ acres) in a rapidly-growing area, you can usually bet money that those tracts will be in play for development in the next 5 to 10 years," says Jeff Michael, director of UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute.

2. Road plans

Commercial and mixed-use developers usually want to buy land in growth areas, near roads with high-traffic counts – a key factor for retail and restaurants.

"If the land is along a major thoroughfare or is at an intersection, then retail/commercial development is likely. Retail loves corners. Retail loves traffic. It's why a 9-year-old kid's lemonade stand does better at a street corner," says Mary Newsom, associate director of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.

To gauge a road's future, look into whether a local or state transportation agency plans to improve a busy thoroughfare or add lanes. Road projects that increase vehicle capacity could be priming the area for development.

Worse, if there's no plan to improve an already-congested road but development keeps coming, you can count on a frustrating commute from that area.

Local resources for road planning include:

3. New corporate neighbors

If your prospective home is close to where large office employers seem to be popping up, current development trends indicate a mixed-use project could soon follow.

Consider Indian Land. Connected by U.S. 521 to Interstate 485, just south of Charlotte and Ballantyne, Indian Land is an increasingly desirable spot for big employers. To keep pace with the growth, several major road projects are already underway or planned, including widening S.C. 160.

In Indian Land, employers like Movement Mortgage and CompuCom are expanding. At the same time, developers in Indian Land, Lancaster County and in nearby Fort Mill have asked to rezone large pieces of vacant land, with specific plans for mixed-use developments.

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Knowing where local government officials want to steer corporate and commercial projects can help inform home buyers. Most cities or counties have detailed planning documents available online, sometimes referred to as "comprehensive land use plans" or maps showing zoning limitations.

Large cities, like Charlotte, use small area plans and specific district maps to guide long-term planning.

Finding your prospective neighborhood on these land use maps will help you identify both the short-term and long-term possibilities for the surrounding area. Residential areas near growing office and commercial corridors could be a desirable place for mixed-use developers.

Employers have been, for example, migrating over recent years to open spaces north of Charlotte, like Huntersville, Cornelius and Mooresville. Those places are now having some growing pains and traffic problems as residential and mixed-use construction springs up around employment centers.

"The relocation of Lowe's corporate headquarters over a decade ago is the big driver of what we're now seeing announced south of Mooresville," says Michael, with UNCC.