Q & A with Geoffrey Etnire



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© 2011 Hoge, Fenton, Jones & Appel, Inc.





What is a "dirt lawyer?"
"Dirt lawyer" is a slang term used in the real estate business for a lawyer who obtains governmental approvals. Officially, we're called "land use lawyers," a subspecialty in real estate law. Dirt, by itself, is not worth much. The value is created when you take dirt and add governmental approvals.

You are a development lawyer and an environmentalist?
Absolutely. We have to have healthy, sustainable communities. We have to have both smart development and smart environmental preservation -- the reality is that they complement each other. For example, developers have to preserve our open spaces and environmental resources, but the flip side of that is environmentalists and neighborhood groups have to embrace increasing densities. We can expect skirmishes on that.

What is dirtlawyer.com?
It's a tool for people involved in real estate and the local political process. We have collected in one place links to websites that are important in real estate and the local political process. The portal has links to 127 cities, the local papers in all those cities, 58 counties, all the State and Federal agencies involved in real estate and the environment, and much more.

Why is this portal important?
A single development proposal may be reviewed by 10 - 20 governmental agencies that claim some form of authority. The process is complex and there is a mass of information. This portal steers people to the right websites and allows them to get to that information quickly.

Who can benefit from it?
It's not a website for lawyers - it is for everybody interested in real estate. People who use it include landowners, developers, environmentalists, planning staffs, other public employees, City Council members, Supervisors, Planning commissioners, reporters and any citizen who wants to know what is going on.

How did dirtlawyer.com come about?
It created itself -- my "bookmarks" for real estate websites got jammed with web addresses for cities, agencies, environmental groups, consultants, and the like. Now, folks interested in the real estate biz can dump their bookmarks and just go to dirtlawyer.com

How does this website benefit Hoge Fenton?
There is no direct benefit, we do it as a public service to the entire real estate community. As you can see, this is not a commercial site -- there is a link to the Hoge Fenton website, but there is absolutely no advertising.

How often do development applications end up in litigation?
That's difficult to say. The Real Estate Group at Hoge Fenton has made its name by keeping our developers and landowners out of court.The average percentage of projects that end up in litigation isn't very informative, because so much depends on the type of project and the local political climate. In general, smart growth projects are challenged less frequently than other projects.

Regulatory processes are incredibly onerous in California. Any prospect for change?
Yes, reform efforts are constant and often are joint efforts of developers and environmentalists. For example, the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group and others are working to working to expand the EIR exemptions for infill projects to encourage smart growth. Another example is that several groups are seeking legislation that will allow higher-density developments to be insurable and, therefore, buildable.