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The Benefits of Hiring a Land Use Attorney for Property Development

The Benefits of Hiring a Land Use Attorney for Property Development

Before you buy land to develop a property, hire an experienced land use attorney. A land use attorney can guide you through the often confusing process of getting your development plans approved.

Let’s explore the many benefits of working with a Portland land use attorney when developing property.

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What Does a Land Use Attorney Do?

A land use attorney is a lawyer who focuses on real estate and property development law. Their knowledge spans zoning laws, building codes, environmental regulations, and more.

Some of the key things a land use attorney can assist with include:

Researching Local Zoning Laws and Building Codes

One of the first tasks a land use attorney will undertake is researching the local zoning laws and building codes that apply to your piece of land.

Zoning laws dictate what types of buildings and activities are allowed in certain areas of a city or county. For example, a local government might have zoned property for residential, commercial, industrial, or mixed use.

Within each zoning category, additional regulations usually specify the maximum height of buildings, minimum setback distances from property lines, the number of parking spaces required, and so on. Building codes set standards for the design and construction of structures to ensure they are safe and structurally sound.

A land use attorney will review all applicable zoning laws and building codes to determine what you can legally build on your land. They may look at your property’s current zoning and surrounding parcels to understand what developments a local government will allow in the area.

An attorney can also research any potential changes to zoning laws that are in the works that can impact your plans.

An attorney can advise you on your options if your desired development isn’t allowed under the current zoning. These may include applying for a land use variance (special permission to deviate from the zoning rules), special use permit, requesting a zoning change, or modifying your plans to fit within the existing regulations.

Researching zoning is the first step in guiding the direction of your development project.

Identifying Legal Restrictions, Easements and Encumbrances

In addition to zoning laws and building codes, a land use attorney will research any other legal restrictions, easements, or encumbrances associated with your property. These are limitations on using your land that may not be immediately obvious.

For example, an easement might allow a utility company to run power lines or pipelines through a section of your property.

A conservation easement can prohibit you from developing certain environmentally sensitive land areas. Deed restrictions might limit the number or type of structures you can build.

Other encumbrances might include liens on the property from previous unpaid debts or ongoing leases that give someone else the right to use part of the land. You must identify all legal encumbrances on a property early in the development process.

If left undiscovered, these issues can derail your project after you invested significant time and money.

A land use attorney has the skills and resources to conduct a thorough title search and identify any restrictions, easements, or encumbrances you need to know. A land use lawyer can explain how these limitations impact your development plans and work with you to find solutions.

In some cases, an attorney can negotiate removing or modifying an encumbrance. It is key to identify these legal restrictions early and adjust your plans accordingly.

Creating Compliant Site Plans and Architectural Drawings

A key component of any development project is creating detailed site plans and architectural drawings that show precisely what you propose to build.

These drawings must comply with all relevant zoning laws, building codes, and other regulations to be approved by the necessary government agencies.

A land use attorney can work closely with your architect or designer to ensure your plans meet all legal requirements. An attorney will review your drawings with an eye for red flags that can lead to rejection by planning authorities.

They might advise you to change the placement of buildings to comply with setback rules or modify the design of structures to meet parking requirements or density limits.

An experienced land use attorney will also know how to draft your plans in a way that will most likely gain approval from zoning boards and other decision-makers. 

An attorney can emphasize features that align with local development goals and downplay aspects that might seem less desirable. Your attorney’s input allows you to put your best foot forward when submitting your plans for review.

Applying for Permits, Variances, and Approvals

Securing the necessary permits, variances, and approvals from different government agencies is often the most complex and time-consuming part of property development.

The exact approvals you’ll need will depend on your specific plans, but they may include:

  • Building permits
  • Zoning variances or special use permits
  • Site plan approvals
  • Subdivision approvals
  • Grading and excavation permits
  • Sewer and water connection permits
  • Environmental permits

Applying for these approvals involves submitting detailed plans, paying fees, and often attending public hearings. A land use attorney can manage the entire process on your behalf. They’ll ensure you file complete and correct applications, and promptly submit them to the proper authorities.

If you need a variance to deviate from the standard zoning requirements, an attorney can prepare a strong case demonstrating why a local government should grant your request. They may cite similar variances that the local government approved or show how your plans align with the city’s broader development goals.

Representing Your Interests in Front of Government Bodies

Securing approvals for a development project often involves multiple appearances before government decision-making bodies. These might include the planning commission, zoning board, city council, county commission, etc. These bodies can approve or deny your plans, so making a strong case is necessary

A land use attorney will be your advocate in these high-stakes situations. They’ll work with you in advance to create a compelling presentation highlighting your development’s merits. An attorney might prepare visual aids, written summaries, and oral arguments explaining your project and its benefits to the community.

Your land use attorney will do most of the talking at the hearing. They’ll walk the decision-makers through your plans, make persuasive arguments, and field questions. An attorney is adept at thinking on their feet and providing clear, confident answers that put your project in the best light.

Government bodies often attach certain conditions or requirements to their development approval. A land use attorney can negotiate these conditions on your behalf, working to get the most favorable terms possible. The attorney’s presence signals that you are serious about your development and willing to invest in doing things correctly.

Negotiating With Neighbors and Resolving Disputes

Property development projects can sometimes be contentious, particularly when neighbors have concerns about how the development will impact them. A land use attorney can help smooth over these conflicts and negotiate mutually agreeable solutions.

For example, if neighbors are worried about the increased traffic your development will bring, an attorney might negotiate an agreement for you to pay for road improvements or a new traffic signal.

If citizens or government officials voice concerns about noise or visual impacts, an attorney can propose changes to your site plan, such as increased landscaping or fencing, to address these issues.

Sometimes, an attorney can get neighbors to withdraw their objections to your development in exchange for certain concessions. This can greatly improve your chances of securing the necessary approvals.

By facilitating communication and compromise, an attorney can often defuse opposition before it escalates into a legal battle.

Of course, sometimes disputes with neighbors or other parties end up in court. If your development faces a lawsuit or administrative appeal, a land use attorney can mount a strong defense on your behalf. They’ll work to resolve the case quickly and favorably so your project can move forward.

Ensuring Ongoing Compliance During Construction

Getting your development plans approved is a major milestone – but it doesn’t mean the legal work is over. Ensuring the work complies with all the permits, approvals, and agreements you secured is important as you begin construction. 

Any deviations can lead to fines, stop work orders, or even the revocation of your approvals.

A land use attorney can be a watchdog during construction, monitoring the work to ensure ongoing compliance. They might review construction contracts to confirm they incorporate all the relevant legal requirements.

An attorney can also advise you on properly documenting your compliance efforts.

If any noncompliance issues arise, a land use attorney can quickly step in to resolve them. They might negotiate with government inspectors or secure after-the-fact approvals for unexpected changes to your plans.

By addressing any violations, an attorney can help keep your construction on track and avoid costly penalties.

Choosing the Right Piece of Land

One of the first and most important steps in property development is selecting the land on which you want to build. There are numerous legal considerations to keep in mind during this process.

A land use attorney can research a piece of land you are interested in and identify any zoning restrictions, easements, covenants, or other encumbrances that can impact your ability to develop it as planned.

For example, the land might be zoned only for residential use while you want to build a commercial property. Utility easements can run through the property that restrict where you can build, or environmental protections might be in place due to an endangered species habitat or wetlands on the site.

An attorney will do thorough due diligence on the legal status of the land early on so you can adjust your plans as needed or decide to walk away if the restrictions are too limiting. It’s much better to uncover these issues before closing a deal than after you buy the land.

Drafting Solid Contracts

Property development involves entering into various contracts, from purchasing agreements with the seller to construction contracts with builders. A land use attorney can draft iron-clad contracts on your behalf and carefully review any contracts other parties ask you to sign.

An attorney will ensure all contracts related to your development are thorough, legally binding, and include language that protects your interests. They’ll ensure important clauses are incorporated, such as contingencies that let you back out of the land purchase if rezoning or permitting efforts are unsuccessful.

The contracts an attorney creates will give you a solid legal foundation for your development plans.

Anticipating Future Needs

Land use attorneys can bring valuable foresight to your development project and anticipate your future needs. They can advise you on how to structure your entitlements and permits to allow for flexibility should you want to make changes.

For example, an attorney might suggest applying for a higher density zoning than you plan to build out initially so you can expand or subdivide the property in the future. Or they may recommend creating a generic site plan that simply defines the building envelope rather than specifying every detail to make it easier to modify your plans later.

A land use attorney can also alert you to upcoming changes to laws, regulations, or government policies that can impact your development. For instance, an attorney may advise expediting your approvals if a slow growth initiative is likely to pass in the next election.

A legal advisor with an eye on the long game can inform your property development decisions.

Resolving Issues That Arise

Even the most well-planned development project will likely encounter unexpected issues or disputes. A land use attorney can work through any problems and toward positive resolutions.

Construction delays, permit violations, easement disputes, and mechanic’s liens are just a few legal issues a development might face. A land use attorney can jump into action, looking out for your interests and limiting your liability. They can negotiate, mediate, arbitrate, or litigate as needed to resolve issues as favorably and efficiently as possible.

Hiring a land use attorney from the start means you’ll already have a legal advisor on your team who is familiar with your project and can respond quickly when challenges arise. You won’t waste precious time getting a new lawyer up to speed.

Consult a Land Use Attorney as Your First Step

Consulting a land use attorney before developing a property. Look for an attorney with experience with the type of development you have in mind and a track record of guiding projects to successful completion.

Developing raw land is a complicated and often difficult process, but with the help of a land use attorney, you can bring your vision to reality while minimizing legal risks. Don’t overlook this valuable partner in your property development efforts.