Landslide of hard work turns around hillside community.

By Daniel Walker Guido

By the time RJN Residential builder Bob Nagler was hired to turnaround Crowne Pond in Wilton, Conn., hopes had tumbled for the mountainside development of 26 luxury homes perched on a steep incline in this New York City bedroom community.

Located nearly 55 miles almost due north of New York City, Wilton is a relatively quick hour-and-15-minute train ride to the city. Couple that with the fact that about half of Wilton's residents work in or around Manhattan, and Crowne Pond should have been a sellout soon after its launch in October 1997. Instead, it languished for years while the original developer and builder committed mistake after mistake, eventually earning the town's wrath and causing long delays in permits and approvals.

"At first, everyone here was behind this development," Nagler says. "The town government liked it; the residents wanted it; the area Realtors supported it," he says. Why not? Crowne Pond, after all, was bringing in affluent residents ready, willing, and able to pay $500,000 to $800,000 and more for a new house. Tax rates would increase as would property values around the 20-acre site. What was not to like?

Compounded errors

Well, the modular aspect of the project, for one thing. Although modular construction has grown in popularity throughout the country, it was no slam dunk in Wilton. "The modular plans didn't go over well with the town officials or with the residents here or the potential buyers," recalls Wilton zoning enforcement officer John Koster. "People just don't think of luxury housing and modular construction together."

But the modular debate was just the start of the problems. Acting like Home Building 101 dropouts, the developer and the builder created a textbook example of how not to go about developing a new subdivision. For example, the developer hired a builder and sales team that weren't seasoned enough to handle the development and sales of a luxury single-family community, Nagler says. City officials agree.

"They cut the entrance into Route 7 without bothering to pull a permit, for instance, which ticked off the state," says Wilton deputy building official Bob Root. "They eventually got the permit, but it was after the fact. They also violated the state right-of-way requirements on the retaining walls needed to level the building pads. Over and over again, they did things wrong and got in trouble."

And that trouble meant delayed building permits, which meant lost sales. The developer and builder had to return several deposits as they had exceeded a reasonable time period to begin construction. Area real estate brokers soon avoided even showing the development. As the mistakes mounted, development ground to a standstill.

Round two

By the time the project's financier, Geometry Realty of New York City, decided the development was going nowhere fast, it was late 1999. By year's end, they had forced out the project's developer and terminated the builder's contract. Geometry officials quickly cast about for someone who could develop a realistic plan to rescue their substantial investment. They lit on Nagler.

Having started with Toll Brothers, Nagler had managed the completion of a Toll community that closed more than 100 homes a year. Crowne Pond had just the right mix of past failure and seemingly insurmountable challenge to interest him.

"The entire project was a mess," Nagler recalls. "Only one of the 10 houses on the upper half of the site was built and occupied; another was under construction; seven were built and occupied of the lower 16."

The best part about the site plan was the mix of homes. The plan itself was fine; it was the execution that was atrocious. The more expensive homes, between 3,300 and 3,600 square feet, were to be built on .50 to .75 acre lots. The plans boasted four bedrooms, two and a half to three baths, gourmet kitchens with upscale appliances, and hardwood floors on the first and second floors. Two of the models featured 800-square-foot master bedroom suites, and all offered two-car garages and two-story entrance foyers.

The less expensive models were to be 2,300-square-foot Colonials with three bedrooms (some with second-floor dens that could be used as a fourth bedroom), two and a half baths, a traditional family room adjoining the kitchen, and two-car garages.

Rather than continue with the modular design, Crowne Pond sales director Sandy Banks says Nagler switched to panelized construction. In addition, he added three new floor plans and upgraded many basic components. "Once he dropped 'modular' from his lexicon, this place started moving," Banks recalls.

To fulfill the city's mandate that nearly 14 acres of the site be dedicated to conservation and recreation, Nagler redesigned the site with walking paths that wind through the community and deposit residents at the adjacent train station. The station was one of the premier selling points Nagler featured in the massive ad and awareness campaign he launched after taking over.

Can-do canon

But even with all the positive changes Nagler made, success didn't come easy. In order to persuade the area's 1,500 Realtor-associates to take another look at Crowne Pond, Nagler and Banks had to put together numerous on-site events and sponsor broker breakfasts at area restaurants to rekindle a positive buzz about the development. They continually revised and sent out brochures to area Realtors and developed ambitious sales incentive plans.

The result? Within 13 months, Nagler's team had found buyers for all of the remaining home sites and had begun construction. He accomplished this by "adopting a can-do attitude and being willing to work within the guidelines the town gave him," Koster says. "If he hadn't come in here and been willing to work hard to solve the myriad of problems this development had, I think it would still be sitting here, mostly vacant and unfinished."