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Homeowners wonder if promised developments will take shape; Councilman Weiner: "Bonds provide limited protection against irresponsible developers who just walk away from a project" - News Journal

County Councilman Bob Weiner said the bonds the developers have to post provide some measure of protection for homeowners living in developments that were never completed.

"That at least gives the homeowners some legal recourse for irresponsible developers who just walk away from a project," Weiner said. "But all real estate purchases involve some element of risk, and there are limits on what government and laws can do to protect people."

Unfulfilled dreams
Homeowners wonder if the developments they were promised will take shape

Kay Lutz purchased senior housing in a Newark development now open to residents of all ages.

In Middletown, Chris Spaulding's Parkside home overlooks two vacant lots and a construction trash bin.

South of Clayton, overgrown weeds are Patricia W. Gonce's bane. She moved to the Old Country Farms neighborhood three years ago.

"This neighborhood was supposed to be finished pretty fast, but we've got a great big pile of dirt next door where they dumped it," she said. "It's all grown up in weeds and not kept up."

Welcome to the new reality of owning a home in one of the dozens of unfinished housing developments in Delaware. Across the state, homeowners  are not living the dream they signed up for.

Here and in communities around the country, people moved into brand-new homes, only to watch progress stall on the partially built house next door. It can mean living on construction sites for a decade.

Mud on those sites hardened, as demand for housing dried up. Some developers fell into bankruptcy while others waited, hoping the market would improve.

Months and years passed, and the subdivided lots sprouted thigh-high growth. Parcels reach to the horizon, flecked by white or fluorescent shoots of utility piping, ready for hookup whenever -- if ever -- the planned homes go up.

Glimmers of life are returning to some previously dormant projects with the sounds of hammers and earth-movers echoing across lanes and cul-de-sacs again. In many cases, homeowners are still waiting for signs of a turnaround.

"It's not the developers' fault. It's not the builders' fault. It's not the residents' fault," said George Haggerty, deputy general manager of New Castle  County's Land Use Department.

"But the people who moved in first are real people who had real expectations who came to find something quite different."

Waiting for amenities

Theon Callender, a council member in Cheswold, lists the downside to construction slowing down in developments.

"You can't get your streets paved completely until the entire development has been finished," she said.

"There are amenities that were part of the development drawings that won't be accessible until more of the development is finished. And there are fewer homeowners paying into the association, so services that might have been available aren't available."

In Newark, the Lang Development Group originally envisioned The Village of Twin Lakes as a 55-and-older community. After sales of the condos slowed, Lang had a portion of the property rezoned for non-age-restricted town houses. Those are now under construction and selling swiftly, said Greg Lingo, owner of Cornell Homes, which is building the town houses on land it buys from Lang.

Homeowners who moved in expecting a neighborhood of retirees consented to the rezoning. But they're unhappy Lang has not provided all the amenities expected at Twin Lakes.

"They sold us a lifestyle at very expensive prices, and they have not come through with what they promised," resident Mary Jo Frohlich said.

Last month, she and several other homeowners wrote to the state attorney general, complaining that amenities such as a pool and fountains haven't been built and that unsold units on the 55-and-older side of the property are rented to underage tenants.

Jason Miller, spokesman for Attorney General Beau Biden , said his office received the complaints and has opened an investigation.

Lang, which remains responsible for the amenities at Twin Lakes, did not return calls for comment last week.

John Dattner was the second person to settle on a home in the Village of Brandywine, the 55-and-older community on U.S. 202, just south of the Pennsylvania line, in 2006.

Ryan Homes had contemplated building 184 homes on the property, but the economy  forced them to stop work on the project the next year. Two years later, McKee Builders took over the property. Now called The Courtyards at Brandywine, the development is 38 percent complete, according to New Castle County records.

Dattner became head of the development's homeowners' association after Ryan left, struggling to ensure that snow and trash removal and sidewalk maintenance continued during the developers' transition. It wasn't what Dattner signed up for when he bought his home.

"I hoped to sit here, fat, dumb and happy and let somebody else worry about things like this," Dattner said.

A spokesman for Ryan Homes declined to comment Friday.

Dattner said the homeowners are pleased with the progress by McKee Builders, which put up 15 houses in two years. But he contends that living on an incomplete development continues to devalue his property.

"Basically, the community has looked at what's happened so far as five wasted years," he said.

Blame falls on economy

After years of wrangling, the developers of Darley Green got approval to transform the old Brookview Apartments into a mixed-use project designed to anchor Claymont's economic renaissance.

The go-ahead happened in 2007, the year the housing market collapsed nationwide. No one even tried to sell a house until 2009.

"We lost 18 to 24 months from the get-go," said Commonwealth Group partner Don Robitzer.

Four years later, Commonwealth has built just 5 percent of 1,226 planned housing units, according to New Castle County records.

"And that is considered a success story," said Haggerty of New Castle County's Land Use Department. "At least they're building something."

Blame the economy, builders and analysts say.

With demand low, it takes longer for the market to absorb new residential projects. Potential homebuyers remain skittish or unable to get a mortgage under lenders' tightened qualifications. Sellers often can't compete with foreclosure prices.

In many cases, builders have reduced their expectations and downsized once-grandiose plans.

"If they've already started building on the project, then you usually try to finish it out because it becomes a stigma on the people already living there," said David Crowe, chief economist for the National Association of Homebuilders in Washington, D.C.

"Otherwise, you leave the developments undeveloped until demand returns."

L. Vincent "Lee" Ramunno, whose projects include Cambria Village in Smyrna, sold as many as 200 homes a year before the bubble burst. That's down to 10 or 20 a year.

"We always used to sell in advance because we were selling nicely," said Ramunno, a lawyer in Wilmington. "Now, we don't build a home until it's sold. Otherwise, they're just going to sit there. That's how builders go broke."
When a developer does go ahead and build, many hit roadblocks getting a loan or convincing zoners of plan revisions.

Turmoil in the banking industry hampered the expected growth of some new Delaware communities, especially with the collapse of regional lender Wilmington Trust Corp. Weak and bad loans, especially in Kent and Sussex counties, eroded the bank's balance sheets and helped lead to its acquisition by M&T Bank earlier this year.

In the months before and after the purchase, Wilmington Trust's lenders and lawyers pressed builders and developers to renegotiate terms or give up their land or projects voluntarily or through foreclosure.

As a result, leading contractors and developers -- Stover Builders, Rosemark Builders and Lyndalia Land Co. among them -- lost miles of lots and entire subdivisions to the bank.

The whole situation reminds developer Jerry Heisler of the early 1980s, when housing developments flourished, then skidded to a halt with the onset of recession.

"It's a horrible situation. Most developers feel horrible about it, too, but there's not much we can do," he said. "There's no demand."

Heisler's holdings include a portion of Meridian Crossing, a development off U.S. 40 in New Castle County. The 738-lot project is 14 percent complete.

Jobs, revenues lost

Beyond the homeowners stand others with a financial stake in half-built communities -- laborers and local governments.

After a slight uptick in June, builders nationwide began work on fewer homes in July, when the annual rate of housing starts fell 1.5 percent to 604,000 last month, according to the Commerce Department.

Statewide, building permits fell 63 percent from 8,195 to 3,072 between 2005-10, according to data collected by the U.S. Census.

Annual revenues from real estate transfers to the state and local governments in Delaware fell from $217 million in mid-2006 to a projected $62 million for the current fiscal year.

A third of Delaware jobs lost during the recession were in construction, and state Department of Labor economist George Sharpley isn't forecasting a substantial boost in industry jobs this year or next, in part based on the flat rate of residential housing contracts.

Counties and municipalities were counting on that growth. Many cut their budgets after the slowdown when revenue from real estate transfers and building permits plummeted.

Annual permit revenue from single-family home construction dropped 64 percent between 2006 and 2009 to $343,566 in unincorporated areas of New Castle County, rebounding somewhat to nearly $590,900 last year. In Smyrna, revenue from transfer taxes slid from $1.05 million in 2008 to $600,000 last year. Middletown officials would not agree to be interviewed for this article.

Help for homeowners

In New Castle County, the construction lull placed officials in new roles. Instead of monitoring active construction sites, inspectors managed issues arising from the long-term vacant lots. For example, the county requires owners of dormant construction sites to plant vegetation that will minimize soil erosion and runoff.

They faced sometimes tough judgment calls. Should inspectors cite a homeowner for allowing tall grass in his yard, while the code allows for the higher grass on the unbuilt lot next door? Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, said David Culver, general manager of the county Land Use Department.

"We're trying to be sympathetic to all affected parties," Culver said. "We want to do whatever we can to protect the homeowners already in the residences. At the same time, we want to do what we can to help the developer move along with the project."

County Councilman Bob Weiner said the bonds the developers have to post provide some measure of protection for homeowners living in developments that were never completed.

"That at least gives the homeowners some legal recourse for irresponsible developers who just walk away from a project," Weiner said. "But all real estate purchases involve some element of risk, and there are limits on what government and laws can do to protect people."

The state attorney general has gotten involved in some cases where developers never provided the amenities they promised.

Civic groups, such as the Southern New Castle County Alliance, have supported legislation that would require developers in Delaware to plainly spell out terms for potential homebuyers, such as fee obligations and a schedule of when amenities will be open and available. Such matters now are often buried in the fine print of contracts, said Leann Ferguson, an Alliance leader.

"Often, the terms are that a pool and clubhouse, for example, will be available for resident use at 75 percent of build-out," she said.

"That means you have a long time to wait today. Your kids might be 20 and in college before that pool is built. Just know going in that this is the risk you take."

Short of taking legal action, the law leaves homeowners with little choice other than waiting and hoping their community will eventually look something like the dream they had when they bought their home.

In southern Delaware, residents were relieved to see construction sputtering back to life south of Long Neck in the nearly 800-acre Peninsula on Indian River Bay, a project once led by East Coast development powerhouse L.M. Sandler.

Peninsula owed Wachovia Bank $55 million for the project in 2009, when it was forced into receivership, according to court documents. The appraised value of the property at that time was just $34.5 million.

Alfred Lester moved into a home on a cul-de-sac just as the court battle began. Work on the project's homes, golf course and other amenities had slowed to a near standstill, he said.

"We knew it was going to take a long time, but there's a fair amount of construction going on now," Lester said.

Resident Mike Gagnon was glad to see the building resume.

"There have been a fair number of units sold over the last several months," he said, "which is good news."

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