Hope for Hillcrest Preserve revives

Plans to develop the land near Interstate 75 and State Road 52 have come and gone - and come again. But there's no guarantee that luck has changed.

Published August 28, 2006

For six years, the promise hovered on the hill.

Hillcrest Preserve, a 667-acre development proposed for just west of Interstate 75 and State Road 52, was to be one of the anchors of northeast Pasco's growth.

It was to boast 16 villages with a total of 1,599 homes, a golf course, 50,000 square feet of offices and 100,000 square feet of stores.

It was to help turn one of east Pasco's rustic ranches into a suburban satellite.

But the property has flipped three times since 2000, when it first won approval from the County Commission. It's had its name changed from Pasco Hills to Hillcrest Preserve. Its had its plans tweaked and its golf course dropped.

And still no sign of homes or any development on those rolling pastures.

But now plans for 1,382 single-family homes have been submitted to county planners by Hillcrest's latest set of owner-developers, Standard Pacific Homes of Tampa. The preliminary plans call for five villages and 477 residential units.

Are Hillcrest's prospects revived?

"I did notice there were new fire hydrants on the south side of SR 52," said Barbara Sessa, San Antonio's town clerk, recalling a faint sign of changes afoot. "The property on both sides are vacant. They don't put in fire hydrants for vacant property."

Still, past plans for Hillcrest have come and gone, with no guarantee that this latest set would see the light of day.

In 2000, Carrollwood developer George Karpay announced plans to buy the site from ZOM Development Corp. of Orlando.

In 2003, Karpay's preliminary plans appeared to have dropped the golf course. Those plans never came to fruition.

In a series of contracts, the site flipped over to Michigan developer Crosswinds Communities, before it landed with Standard Pacific in January.

Not all of the permits have been lined up yet, and with the market downturn, Standard Pacific's purchase looks symbolic of the current wave of investors getting burned.

It is unusual for developers to close on deals before all permits are secured, but industry specialists say the last eight years have been an unusual time.

"The market was so hot at the time, they had to move quickly," said Patrick Berman, a broker with the Tampa real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. "Unfortunately, they got caught in that frenzy."

Berman is a veteran of three residential market downturns in a 25-year career.

In the heady old days, developers used to practice the "60-30 rule," Berman said: 60 days to get the permits, 30 days to close. If the permits aren't in line yet, close the deal anyway.

Standard Pacific faces a similar situation at the Suncoast Parkway and State Road 54, where it bought 266 acres in 2003. The company is still fighting in court for the right to excavate a sand pit there.

A neighbor there, Dr. Octavio Blanco, is appealing an environmental permit that allows Standard Pacific to dig the pit.

It's back to soberer practices now, but those caught at the tail end of the boom may be learning a hard lesson.

"The last guy in often gets burned," Berman said. "Either you sell at a loss, or you hold onto it until the sales come back."

Standard Pacific's Tampa president, David Pelletz, did not reply to a call for comment.

But real estate agents with property prospects surrounding Hillcrest Preserve are counting on him.

They think the mega development has sat on the shelf so long that it's developed a chicken-or-egg syndrome: Are Hillcrest's developers waiting for surrounding developments to justify their pushing ahead, or are surrounding developments waiting for Hillcrest?

Frank Johnson, an agent with hopes to bring a 150,000-square-foot, grocery-anchored shopping center across Hillcrest Preserve, is hoping that Standard Pacific moves first.

"We're waiting for that to happen," he said. "(Our development) depends on all the homes to be built over there. It is key to our piece. We need more homes to generate more business."

With at least four other real estate companies with vacant properties crowding around that shimmering hill in east Pasco, it's a sign that a prolonged softening of the residential market may be a prelude to a wider slump in retail prospects.

But never say never. The word is that Standard Pacific may get things off the ground soon.

"I was told they were going to start in the fall, in October or November," Johnson said.

Chuin-Wei Yap covers growth and development in Pasco County. He can be reached at cyap@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4613.