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By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER ‚Äď If you are a developer planning to create a subdivision of big houses on big lots, now is not the time to start.
In fact, you‚Äôll probably want to rethink a small-scale plan calling for a few modest buildings in a rural contract.
Except for the odd exception ‚Äď Deerbrook, off Mail Road comes to mind ‚Äď development in Exeter has ground to a halt.
The town‚Äôs future prospects are being considered under a project called ‚ÄúVision for Exeter,‚ÄĚ the result of a study to determine if a concept of high-density village/villages balanced with conservation of farms and woodland is the most sensible way to go.
A final public hearing on the matter is scheduled for Wednesday, beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the Exeter Job Corps on Main Street.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a perfect time to do it,‚ÄĚ says David W. Schweid, town planner, of the long-term blueprint.
With multiple projects ‚Äď some of them originating as long ago as eight years and shelved virtually since inception ‚Äď things have rarely been bleaker for contractors and those in the related building trades and supply businesses.
For example, three lots of the King‚Äôs Crossing subdivision off the Rt. 165 end of Ted Rod Road have been advertised for sale at a mortgagee‚Äôs auction next Tuesday at 11 a.m.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a five-lot rural compound on a gravel road,‚ÄĚ Schweid explains. ‚ÄúThere are tax issues and he‚Äôs been developing on a shoestring.‚ÄĚ
There is no surprise in the answer to what has brought on the collapse.
‚ÄúThe big picture is the economy is killing everything,‚ÄĚ the planner states.
‚ÄúDevelopment began to get ugly at the beginning of 2007 and the September 2008 bailouts drove the final nail. It had already been going downhill; it‚Äôs been a gradual, painful death. It‚Äôs just terrible. I can‚Äôt imagine what it‚Äôs like to be in the construction business.
‚ÄúPeople need jobs, need to work, need to eat. It‚Äôs tough right now.‚ÄĚ
Town Councilman Dan Patterson, who in the past has served on both the zoning and planning boards, knows the situation all too well. He is a contractor.
‚ÄúThe biggest problem in Rhode Island,‚ÄĚ he asserts, ‚Äúis not only foreclosures. We‚Äôre seeing reputable people in the trade [being turned away.] The banks will not give you a dime; no one can get loans to build anything and in Rhode Island nothing is selling.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm the busiest I‚Äôve been in a year-and-a-half and it‚Äôs two guys [when] normally I have a crew of six. Guys are taking jobs that, normally, they wouldn‚Äôt look it ‚Äď anything to get the bills paid.‚ÄĚ
Patterson knows many people who‚Äôve gone out of business after losing everything. He suspects one South County colleague of being so despondent he committed suicide.
Purveyors of building supplies are going under, too.
‚ÄúOne gentleman that I work for said his biggest problem is getting materials,‚ÄĚ Patterson notes. He adds that a tool-store owner is on the ropes, too.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs getting really hit because he caters to the carpentry trade.‚ÄĚ
The devastation is being felt throughout town.
Oak Harbour Village, for instance, which has had success with its large shopping plaza on South Country Trail, has been unable to go forward with plans for a nearby medical facility.
‚ÄúThey have approval to build one [structure] on 20 acres, a 64-bed Alzheimer‚Äôs facility, but there‚Äôs no demand,‚ÄĚ says Schweid.
On Ted Rod Road, across from the former Blueberry Hill Country Store, an overgrown patch of weeds and a glimpse of a dirt driveway are all there is to show of Exeter Real Estate Holdings‚Äô plan for 99 units of senior housing known as Cobblestone.
It was approved in 2008 and ‚Äô09 then extended to 2010. That permission will expire on Dec. 11, 2011. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs been no further work and no application to the state,‚ÄĚ Schweid states. ‚Äú[The project] needs approval for wetlands, septic system, a well.‚ÄĚ
Fourteen lots at a subdivision called Quail Ridge, off Slocum Road, received final approval in May 2007, calling for substantial homes on large lots.
‚ÄúSix $700,000 homes have been built and two sold.‚ÄĚ
Plans were recorded by mega-developer Gerry Zarrella for a rural compound and a subdivision but no approvals were sought; another dormant set of plans called for construction across from Oak Harbour; a five-lot rural compound of energy-efficient homes off Liberty Church Road has not moved forward; and nothing has happened with a four-five lot subdivision called Wolf Rock Farms.
The state has played a role in the inactivity.
‚ÄúIn 2009,‚ÄĚ Schweid explains, ‚Äúthe legislature recognized the bad economy and the downturn so they passed a law starting a clock for subdivisions and permits. The statute sets a certain amount of time to develop after the master plan is approved. In Exeter, the clock was to run through 2011, but that deadline has been extended through 2013.‚ÄĚ
This system, he states, lets developers bide their time.
‚ÄúIf I came before the town with a master plan and I wanted to keep my state approval, it‚Äôs a significant amount of money. Now I can say, ‚ÄėThere‚Äôs no market. I‚Äôm going to sit on it.‚ÄĚ
For the town, it‚Äôs a significant difference.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs taxes on 40 undeveloped acres versus taxes on households. Thanks to the legislature, people can now afford to wait.‚ÄĚ
Although the town fought the development of Deerbrook, created from a former gravel pit off Mail Road, it has turned out to be a positive, Schweid avers.
‚ÄúThe affordable housing law added the words ‚Äúfor profit‚ÄĚ allowing developers to ‚Äúbypass local regulations. It was a significant change [and] when it happened, 17 applications came in to South County towns and Coventry.‚ÄĚ
Deerbrook‚Äôs developer applied for 130 units on land that under zoning rules at that time would have been 40 units. Plans called for 64 single family and 66 duplex condos priced from $180,000 for low to moderate incomes, to upwards of $300,000 for high end.
‚ÄúExeter opposed and denied Deerbrook, but now it‚Äôs a good thing,‚ÄĚ says Schweib. ‚ÄúThe developer agreed to more senior units. In retrospect, it could have been worse ‚Äď and they‚Äôre selling like crazy.‚ÄĚ
He‚Äôs optimistic about the ‚ÄúVision for Exeter.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs something that‚Äôs been percolating for six to seven years. It was started by the Nature Conservancy and other agencies. Four years ago, we were chosen by the Orton Family Foundation of Vermont to be one of two towns for a Borderlands study ‚Äď a visioning and public outreach.‚ÄĚ
Using money from the foundation and a state challenge grant, Exeter hired consultants to provide final draft ordinances.
‚ÄúPeople felt a village or villages would be a good thing,‚ÄĚ Schweid explains. ‚Äú[They thought] dense development would be good if it was tied to preservation of farm and forest land.
‚ÄúIt would [allow] development in locations where the community wants to see it while preserving‚ÄĚ other parcels. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs an alternative to large land development.‚ÄĚ
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.