With the Grain
For other useful definitions, see the Reality Glossary.

Site Condominium

Aloud now: "A condominium is not a building. It is a form of ownership." It may be a group of houses, or boat slips, or apartments, and so forth. Viewed from the roadway, a residential site condo may look exactly the same as a PLAT. However, it differs greatly.

Platting begins with one parcel of land (sometimes two or more). When that PLAT is finished, the original land will have been divided into a larger number of individual lots. With a condo, no matter how many "building sites" exist on the final plan, there will likely be only the original number of parcels--probably only one. Put simply, the only parcel is the site.

The result differs from a conventional plat. Taxes may seem to be assessed differently, especially if the use of shared open space is assumed. A single "master deed" must bind all owners. The new road, if any, may be private rather than public. In communities suffering from sprawl, it is most ominous that the public review process may be cut short dramatically.

The fastest a PLAT can be ready for legal lot sales is on the order of six months (typically more like eight to twelve months) from the first public hearing. Some hearing, even a minimal review by the county, is required. For a site condo, though, the owner may need to give the municipality little more than notice of intent. If the community is unprepared (has no ordinance to address condominiums) the sale of building sites may begin as little as ten days later. Even with local hearings, lot sales will probably begin in under 60 days.

Although terms vary slightly, there'll likely be:

  • a "general common area," to be shared by all owners. If the proprietor and designer make a real effort, this will be a natural or perhaps a recreational area, and respect the most sensitive areas of the land. Unfortunately, a more typical general common area is little more than the road or a footpath.

  • a "limited common area," to be treated by each individual homeowner as their own land. This area may look similar to a platted lot, but remember: there are no "lots." Local ordinance restrictions on "lots" may not apply. Unless your ordinance is very clear, the shape and size of each limited common area can vary dramatically.

  • a number of "building envelopes," within which owners may construct dwellings. If the proprietor and designer are truly lazy, they'll sketch limited common areas, then apply minimum yard setbacks from your local ordinance to create huge building envelopes. On the other hand, if they care, building envelopes will leave little to chance, and the design will preserve wide buffers to sensitive natural areas or adjoining farms.

A site condominium is a useful approach to some lands and circumstances. However, more than one municipal attorney speaking publicly has voiced the obvious: a site condominium is often the preferred vehicle for developers to avoid the public scrutiny, required hearings, and ordinance guidelines associated with a PLAT.

The Tragic Part

Useful as they may be, site condos have one peculiar drawback: if good old boys dominate the local realty and development pool, the lots sell poorly. In southeast Michigan, where many developers focus on business (more than on vendetta), site condos are a significant, sometimes majority share of new development. Elsewhere in the state, gossip at the lumber yard will frighten most builders away from this new idea ("Oh jeez--we never done that!"). Realtors meekly fall in line.

This is unfortunate for the profession, since any real businessmen who mature into new concepts will be roundly ridiculed (though rarely to their faces). That behavior then spills over onto other new ideas, no matter how useful. Still, when you see builders defiling their own kind in such a bitter, cowardly way, you may find it strangely comforting. It clarifies that their disrespect for the community, and the future, is simply a natural condition. Chilling and pathetic, perhaps, but comforting.

With the Grain - - Box 517 - - Mattawan, Michigan - - 49017-0517 - - wtg@wtgrain.org

...head home now!
Reason to Plan Preservation Spoken Softly Waiting to Die