Sounds of silence echoing at Wiregrass Ranch
Pulte Homes hasn't spoken, but it appears to have stopped work on the huge project.
By CHUIN-WEI YAP
Published March 30, 2007
WESLEY CHAPEL - On Dec. 13, Pulte Homes broke ground on the 5,100-acre Wiregrass Ranch development.
Workers with heavy equipment and trucks moved in. Trees fell by the dozens as the land was leveled.
But now, silence has fallen over Wiregrass. This week, neither soul nor machine could be seen anywhere on the western flank of the development along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.
Real estate industry watchers, neighbors and even county officials are asking: What is happening at Wiregrass?
Pulte won't say.
Pulte's vice president Scott Neal; Pulte's engineer Keith Appenzeller, president of King Engineering; and attorney Joel Tew did not respond to requests for comment made over three days.
Has Pulte, roiled by a troubled housing industry, put the brakes on its city-sized project?
"I have the same question as you do," said Bipin Parikh, assistant county administrator for development. "I spoke to Pulte, and they said they're not working on it."
Parikh said Neal told him this about three weeks ago but did not give Parikh any reason.
Pulte and its offshoot, DiVosta Homes, are not advertising Wiregrass on their Web sites. But the Web site of the company's 55-and-older division, Del Webb, still shows an expected opening date of early 2008 for its portion of Wiregrass. The three builders are developing Wiregrass' 13,000 homes.
Pulte is already authorized and had started to build the east-west Chancey Road extension and the north-south Mansfield Boulevard extension, Parikh said.
The Mansfield extension is supposed to relieve traffic at Wiregrass Ranch High School, which opened in January.
Assistant schools superintendent Ray Gadd said Tuesday that his staff had told him Pulte appeared to have stopped work at the Mansfield extension.
Late Thursday morning, six men, some trucks and heavy equipment were at the site. The men were chatting. There was no sign of work going on.
At the Chancey Road extension along Wiregrass' western border, there was no one to be seen. This was where Pulte had started to build the road that would be a key access point for the development, and is supposed to eventually link up to the existing Chancey Road in southern Zephyrhills.
The building community is rife with talk that Pulte has halted the project.
"I've been told they're just sitting on it," said Natalie Feldman, a real estate agent with ongoing deals in central Pasco. "They took a big hit with the $1-billion bill."
The "big hit" refers to $1.6-billion worth of road improvements that must be built because of the heft of the Wiregrass project. The developer won't pay all of it, but its share of the bill is still a matter of ongoing negotiations with county officials.
Even though Wiregrass has not tied up a county permit for the entire project, it does have permission to proceed with the first phase of 1,999 homes, county officials said. That's what the Dec. 13 groundbreaking was for, Neal had said on an earlier occasion.
Without the permit in hand soon, Wiregrass' $105-million mall also is stuck. Its developers still hope for an early 2008 opening.
Industry watchers say further delays might threaten some of the proposed mall's tenant contracts. Dillard's is supposed to join JCPenney at the site, along with a list of as-yet-undisclosed tenants.
The slowdown in the housing industry hit Pulte, a $14-billion company with projects in 27 states. The company cut a tenth of its workforce last year.
It reported a 56 percent decrease in pretax income for its homebuilding operations in 2006, and pulled back from $151-million worth of land option deals because of declining market conditions, including those in Jacksonville and southeast Florida, according to its annual report.Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at 813 909-4613 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wiregrass at a glance
- 8,000 homes in initial phases, and up to 13,000 eventually
- $105-million Shops At Wiregrass mall
- 18-hole championship golf course
- 100-bed hospital
- National tennis center
- More than 1,000 acres of conservation land
[Last modified March 29, 2007, 23:57:38]
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