Most of us — really, all of us, but I’m saving room for the diehard skeptics — can agree that environmental changes are having a large-scale impact on our planet. But “environmental issues” isn’t a phrase easily uttered in the real estate community without hue and cry. Many practitioners react negatively to topics of environmental significance, and it’s somewhat understandable. Environmental interests can potentially derail real estate projects and transactions as our society becomes more conscious of how development affects the Earth’s well-being. But even if there’s conflict between the two, they’re also intertwined: The environment can have huge implications for how desirable a property is to buyers. So shouldn’t you, as a person who sells property, care about the environment?
I recently profiled three real estate professionals for the July/August issue of REALTOR® Magazine (hitting your mailbox this Friday) who are contending with environmental problems in their regions. The point of the story isn’t to judge whether practitioners have an obligation to acknowledge and respond to real estate’s impact on the environment. It’s an examination of cases in which some have felt a calling to help clients persevere in the face of environmental challenges, from California’s historic drought to Vermont flooding and the proliferation of fracking in Texas. This reporting got me thinking about an interview I did with David Wluka, who sat on the National Association of REALTORS®’ Land Use, Property Rights & Environment Committee for many years. During NAR’s Legislative Meetings & Trade Expo in Washington, D.C., in May, Wluka and I pondered this question: When should property rights take a backseat to the environment?
In case you think you’re about to be lectured on saving the planet, I should add that Wluka is no environmental fundamentalist. He worked as a land planner helping developers build out prime projects in the Boston area before becoming broker-owner of Wluka Real Estate Corp. in Sharon, Mass., and he’s seen firsthand how environmentalists have held back real estate. He recalled a 600-acre project he worked on in the early 2000s that drew the ire of nearby neighbors. The development process was already well underway when someone found a turtle on the property one day.
“Three years later, we lost 70 percent of this land to this turtle,” Wluka said. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection fought for the land to be preserved for native turtles, and the developers couldn’t prove that the turtles weren’t there. The developer had to scale down the project to single-family homes built on 30 percent of the original parcel. “He’ll do OK, but he wanted to have a long-term business there,” Wluka said. “[Environmentalists will] argue that we’re losing priority habitat land, but it also affects the local economy unnecessarily. Towns can end up shooting themselves in the foot. When it comes to creatures and people, sometimes people need to win.”
But these types of issues shouldn’t prevent practitioners from acknowledging the importance of balance with regard to property rights and the government’s role in fostering a healthy environment. Many inherently get this: Thirty-nine percent of REALTORS® say they believe the federal and state governments’ involvement occurs at an “appropriate” level with at least some environmental regulations, according to a recent REALTOR® Magazine survey of nearly 2,000 members. This finding aligns with Wluka’s assertion that real estate practitioners are environmentalists if only because it is their job to protect the important features that make their communities attractive to buyers, which include the environment. “We’re not botanists, we’re not horticulturists,” he said. “But I think practitioners in general are environmentalists because quality of life needs an environment that is attractive. … When we sell a lifestyle, that means being an environmentalist.”
He’s not suggesting that real estate pros take a political stance on the environment or get involved in movements, but he thinks agents and brokers have a responsibility to make their clients aware of how their properties could affect the environment. That starts with not backing away from hard conversations with clients about how to address their properties’ environmental impact, even if it stands to make the transaction more complicated, he says. “Practitioners should advise clients to get an attorney to help sort out environmental issues, and tell them to get an engineer when dealing with wetlands and floodplains.” (One of the agents I spoke to for the REALTOR® Magazine story advised her clients in flood-prone Vermont to do the same.) “You don’t have to be the environmental expert, but you sure better know to tell the owner that they need an expert. You’re responsible for things like that that are knowable.”
Wluka, in essence, is telling you to look at the environment from a business angle — which is less contradictory than it may sound. The state of the local environment can deeply affect your ability to sell property. So foster open discussions with clients, but try to leave the politics out of it. Remember that being an advocate for your community means championing a healthy environment for all.
So are you an environmentalist?