Nobody's Home: Subdivision Sits Unfinished

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune

By Laura Kinsler

Published September 20, 2008

ZEPHYRHILLS - The streets are paved and marked to prevent speeders. Nearly $750,000 went into landscaping the main boulevards with crape myrtles, maples and blooming plumbagos.

Every night, the lampposts come on just after sunset, providing an eerie sense of calm across the neighborhood, which is completely empty.

And the bills keep piling up.

Riverwood Estates was supposed to be a symbol of southeast Pasco's bourgeoning real estate boom. Instead, it's an extreme example of the county's housing bust: a subdivision with everything but homes and residents.

"We currently have nothing going on there," developer Doug Weiland said. "We're not sure what the viability of the project is in the near term. Long term, we still think there's viability."

Weiland's Oldsmar-based JES Properties bought the 637 acres on U.S. 301, just north of the county line, in 2004. Plans called for 1,400 homes, along with a 300,000-square-foot shopping center.

National homebuilders Lennar and Standard Pacific pledged to buy more than half of the lots for $38 million. JES formed a community development district, which took out $23 million in bonds and put in the roads, drainage system and landscaping as the market imploded around it.

Then the builders walked away.

"We had to put all that in because of my contract with the builders, who all walked out at the last second," Weiland said. "They're even trying to get their deposit back."

There's no money coming in. Now the community development district has defaulted on its bonds. Contractors who paved the streets and put in the curbs, fancy waterfalls at the entrances and sidewalks have filed liens against Weiland's company, saying they haven't been paid. Pasco County filed a lien for unpaid garbage collection fees.

The developer can't pay a $23,000 tax bill. The district has had to dip into its bond reserves to pay the $6,200-a-month light bill and maintain the landscaping. Weiland said he may have to abandon the project.

The district has foreclosed on Weiland's company for failing to pay its CDD assessments. The complaint, filed in July, calls due $14.2 million for the bonds plus another $1 million for interest and unpaid operating and maintenance assessments.

Five years ago, the U.S. 301 corridor was projected to be one of Pasco's hottest growth corridors. Zephyrhills had annexed 1,000 acres and approved plans for seven subdivisions that would have doubled the town's population.

In 2005, the city had approved the construction of nearly 3,000 homes that would have offered a more affordable alternative for buyers who were priced out of Wesley Chapel and New Tampa.

"Four or five years ago, it got crazy here, and the market really got excitable," said Todd Vande Berg, the city's director of development services. "A majority of those residential projects are now on hold."

Four housing developments were approved around the Silverado Golf & Country Club, but so far fewer than two dozen homes have been built, Vande Berg said.

At Zephyr Commons, on the former Gore Dairy property, construction is under way for a shopping center anchored by Publix and Staples. But the residential component of the mixed-use project has been delayed until market conditions improve.

Another mixed-use project, the former Ruck's Dairy on State Road 39, was approved for 480 homes on 265 acres. The developer, Taylor Woodrow Homes, has asked the city to rezone 100 acres from residential to industrial. The request will be on the city council agenda Monday.

But it could take years until the demand for new homes catches up to the oversupply of lots along U.S. 301. For Riverwood Estates, that can't come soon enough.

"We're hoping the turnaround comes sooner rather than later," Weiland said. "I don't know how much longer we'll be able to hold onto the property. It depends on the bondholders."