Hard times thwart developer

Published May 5, 2007

WESLEY CHAPEL - The plan was to raise 477 homes on 611 acres along Old Pasco Road deep in the northern reaches of Wesley Chapel.

But now, the developer, D.R. Horton, is no longer closing on its contract for the proposed Grantham Ranch, real estate agents and county officials say.

The decision could prove to be a boon for a future developer.

In trying to get the Grantham property rezoned, Horton had to face angry neighbors who fought the developer over flooding concerns in the area.

In December, Horton narrowly won a 3-2 approval from the County Commission to go ahead with the project. Because of the flooding fears, commissioners Jack Mariano and Pat Mulieri voted against Horton, even though the developer took pains to design the project with higher-than-required drainage standards.

But now, real estate agents and county officials say the residential market downturn threw a wrench into Horton's plans.

But the hard-won rezoning stays with the property despite Horton's pullout.

"I have someone who's looking at it right now," said Arnold Godwin, one among several brokers lining up suitors for the site.

Godwin said that Horton had pulled out and that he had stepped in to hopefully broker a deal as an acquaintance of the Grantham family.

He would not disclose his clients, but quashed rumors that it was a governmental agency. He said it was another developer.

Other real estate agents say they have signed confidentiality agreements with the Grantham family to bring other suitors to the table.

It is unclear when Horton pulled out of its contract with the Grantham family trust. Godwin said it was "not too long ago."

Horton is a 29-year-old publicly listed builder founded in Fort Worth, Texas. It's the largest home builder in the United States and has operations in 24 states.

Like most other builders, Horton is going through trying times.

In mid April, Horton announced an 85 percent drop in quarterly earnings, largely due to $81-million in charges for forfeited land options and the lowered value of its land and home inventory. Chairman Donald Horton said "market conditions in the homebuilding industry continue to be challenging."

Tom Hill, Horton's Tampa president, did not respond to two messages for comment on Grantham Ranch on Friday.

On its Web site, the developer is still marketing its Colony Lakes and Little Ridge communities in west Pasco. It is not showing Grantham Ranch, not even in its "Coming Soon" category.

Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at 813 909-4613 or cyap@sptimes.com.