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Homebuyers urged to 'just ask the question' about zoning for their area

Codi and Steve Nowacki, seen outside of their Fargo, N.D., home Wednesday, July 16, 2014, are happy with the house they moved into nearly four years ago, even while being located in an industrial center. The two said they like being able to walk from home downtown for work one day and supper the next. Nick Wagner / The Forum

FARGO – When Steve and Codi Nowacki went house hunting, they fell in love with a place in the industrial zone west of Fargo’s downtown.

“It is kind of a funny spot. You’re driving around and tucked back in here are these cute little houses,” Codi said.

The couple just didn’t realize that the house was zoned as industrial, too.

Cute won the day, even though the couple had to jump through some hoops to finance their industrial zone home.

Now, even with heavy trucks trundling through their alley during the day, Codi said she likes her neighbors. Surprisingly, they’re pretty quiet, she said.

But if she buys another house in the future, she said she will want to know the area’s zoning, if only to get a bank loan easier.

“Just ask the question,” Codi said. “It just makes sense to figure out what’s around you.”

Local real estate professionals and city officials say buyers often don’t ask about zoning.

They’ll look at a home, see it’s surrounded by other homes and assume everything is zoned single-family residential.

The empty wheat or bean field a couple of blocks away – which could be zoned for apartments, condominiums or for a strip mall – is a blank on their consciousness.

Until someone decides to build on it.

The most recent uproar tied to land use locally is the ongoing protest over plans by Churches United for the Homeless to build a 41-unit apartment building in north Moorhead to house homeless individuals and families.

The project, which would go up at 315 34th St. N., has been met by protests from residents of the Pine View and Arbor Park subdivisions, who say they’re worried the project could lead to more crime and hurt property values.

Some city and county leaders have even said they won’t back Churches United’s application for a $6 million state loan.

Peter Doll, who works in the city of Moorhead’s planning and zoning department, said home values are determined by the total of the pluses and minuses of a neighborhood and that protests are often a “flare-up of emotion.”

Doll, who sets and determines the value of properties for the city, said neighborhoods are designed for a mix of uses.

“You hear in a lot of public meetings that if you allow this use or that use, you’re going to wreck my value. I’ve never been able to quantify that. (The complaint is) just overused,” he said.

Noise, smells, heavy traffic or a rowdy neighbor will affect home values more than an apartment complex, he said.

“There’s a lot more talk than truth to how the market truly reacts,” Doll said. “Most people’s homes are a large investment and people like to protect their investment. But I think the perception is a lot more sensitive than the market itself.”

Jeff Shipley, president of the Fargo-Moorhead Area Association of Realtors, said real estate professionals have fiduciary duties to their clients. If a client asks what can be built around their property, a professional will try to find out. Shipley said.

But zoning is a general designation. If a property is zoned for commercial use, that’s all the information the Realtor may be able to supply. What eventually is built on the land will only need to fit the parameters of a commercial designation.

Even then, zoning can change, Shipley said.

“We give them the information that’s available at the time,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Randy Schwartz of Town and Country Realty has been selling properties for 32 years.

In that time, only one buyer has asked him about the zoning of land. That was for a home in Fargo’s Rose Creek subdivision.

Todd Anhorn of Advantage Realtors also doesn’t hear many zoning questions from home buyers.

Sometimes, it’s better for a Realtor to be proactive, he said.

“We bring it up before our clients even ask it,” Anhorn said.

Aaron Nelson, a planner for the city of Fargo, said it’s a good idea for people buying a home in an undeveloped area to be aware of zoning around them.

He encourages people to use Fargo’s online zoning map, which is updated every few months, or call the planning office.

Still, it’s common to see protests from property owners. Some of that can be chalked up to the NIMBY mindset, or “not in my backyard,” he said.

“It’s common. It’s human nature to assume the worst,” Nelson said.

Kristie Leshovsky, a Moorhead planner, said some questions can be settled when developers share master plans with Realtors in their area.

Moorhead also puts its zoning maps online, she said. That way, property owners or potential buyers can “have a little bit of an idea of what’s going there.”

Still, her office only gets a few calls a month for zoning questions.

“We would certainly welcome any questions that people might have,” she said.

Doll said protests become more frequent when areas begin to fill their last lots.

There will be more of that “infill” as the Highway 10 corridor continues to develop, he said.

Homeowners sometimes have to shake the thought that the empty lot next to them “will remain that way forever,” Doll said. “It doesn’t.”

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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