Even as home prices fell, foreclosures clogged up judge’s calendars, and thousands of empty lots sat abandoned in Central Florida, Hearthstone has sat patiently on two large parcels of land in the Greater Orlando area it bought near the peak of the market, waiting for the right time to turn the raw land into communities.
Nobody’s standing in line to buy homes on the parcels in Lake and Sumter counties now, but the residential land investor is betting they will be some three years or so and, when that happens, the land will be ready.
Even as the Florida market has sat stagnant or worse, Hearthstone has been working to get approvals to build two large master-planned communities, one northwest of Orlando within the orbit of Disney World and its 66,000 jobs, and the other more than 50 miles away within the gravitational pull of The Villages, the giant active-adult community scheduled to be built out by 2015.
"If we made all of our decisions based on what was happening today we would be fishermen," joked Chuck Piper, a representative of the California-based Hearthstone.
Rather, Hearthstone used longer term factors, such as location, to decide that its two Orlando projects were worth moving forward with now.
In Lake County, Hearthstone has all but final zoning approval for about 1,600 homes in Avalon Groves, a nearly 1,000-acre parcel that will be an easy commute to Disney and Orlando thanks to new roads that have been completed since Hearthstone bought the property in partnership with the former Engle Homes in 2006. Engle ended up as part of the TOUSA bankruptcy, but Hearthstone owned the land and managed to extract it from the process.
Avalon Groves is the largest new residential project in Lake County in five years and one of the largest in the region for the past three, the Orlando Sentinel reported. There’s an advantage to bringing projects in for approval when business is slow and government is grateful for anything that will help boost the tax base.
"Thank you for bringing development back to Lake County," said Timothy Morris, vice chairman of the Lake County Zoning Board, according to the Sentinel.
The project, which also includes 350,000 square feet of commercial space, could have the first home ready with a car parked in the garage within two or three years if work on the land begins immediately, said Piper, though the decision about when to start development hasn’t been made yet, he added.
"We are not looking at selling homes today," said Piper. "We are getting the zoning approved today. If you add site plan, engineering, developing the first phase, having a builder buying lots, and you add up all the months from site plan approval to the first car in the garage, the lights on, and the kids playing in the yard, it’s three years."
Hearthstone has approval for an even larger development further north of Orlando on a 4,300-acre parcel approved for 8,000 homes, 800,000 square feet of commercial/retail, and half a million square feet of industrial development in Wildwood, Fla., on a parcel called the Wright Farms project.
That location has two big things going for it. First, it’s near the Florida Turnpike and a number of other improved roadways that allow easy access to major roads that lead everywhere in the state as well as a railway line, Piper said.
Second, it’s five miles, as the crow flies, from The Villages, an amazingly successful active-adult community that was No. 16 on the 2010 BUILDER 100 list with 2,208 closings.
"We looked at their current pace, and they should be built out by 2015," said Piper, adding that The Villages' developer says it has no plans to grow beyond what it has planned now.
"At build-out, The Villages will have 100,000 happy, healthy elderly folks—and only resale homes to offer. We could be an alternative," Piper said.
Mark Porath, a founder and CEO of Hearthstone, said he sees the Florida market as stabilizing in general, but that it needs home sales volume and prices to increase before it can be seen as improving.
"We like Florida for the longer term," he said. "We just need to get volume. … We see these [developments] as the future. It’s obviously not today. We have investors that have the ability to not be overly reactive. We created value [on the land] through entitlements. Now you can sell it or sit on it. You can mothball it and develop it when the market value returns."
Teresa Burney is a senior editor at Builder magazine.