By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – 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’ll probably want to rethink a small-scale plan calling for a few modest buildings in a rural contract.
Except for the odd exception – Deerbrook, off Mail Road comes to mind – development in Exeter has ground to a halt.
The town’s future prospects are being considered under a project called “Vision for Exeter,” 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.
“It’s a perfect time to do it,” says David W. Schweid, town planner, of the long-term blueprint.
With multiple projects – some of them originating as long ago as eight years and shelved virtually since inception – things have rarely been bleaker for contractors and those in the related building trades and supply businesses.
For example, three lots of the King’s Crossing subdivision off the Rt. 165 end of Ted Rod Road have been advertised for sale at a mortgagee’s auction next Tuesday at 11 a.m.
“It’s a five-lot rural compound on a gravel road,” Schweid explains. “There are tax issues and he’s been developing on a shoestring.”
There is no surprise in the answer to what has brought on the collapse.
“The big picture is the economy is killing everything,” the planner states.
“Development 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’s been a gradual, painful death. It’s just terrible. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be in the construction business.
“People need jobs, need to work, need to eat. It’s tough right now.”
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.
“The biggest problem in Rhode Island,” he asserts, “is not only foreclosures. We’re 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.
“I’m the busiest I’ve been in a year-and-a-half and it’s two guys [when] normally I have a crew of six. Guys are taking jobs that, normally, they wouldn’t look it – anything to get the bills paid.”
Patterson knows many people who’ve 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.
“One gentleman that I work for said his biggest problem is getting materials,” Patterson notes. He adds that a tool-store owner is on the ropes, too.
“He’s getting really hit because he caters to the carpentry trade.”
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.
“They have approval to build one [structure] on 20 acres, a 64-bed Alzheimer’s facility, but there’s no demand,” 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’ plan for 99 units of senior housing known as Cobblestone.
It was approved in 2008 and ’09 then extended to 2010. That permission will expire on Dec. 11, 2011. “There’s been no further work and no application to the state,” Schweid states. “[The project] needs approval for wetlands, septic system, a well.”
Fourteen lots at a subdivision called Quail Ridge, off Slocum Road, received final approval in May 2007, calling for substantial homes on large lots.
“Six $700,000 homes have been built and two sold.”
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.
“In 2009,” Schweid explains, “the 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.”
This system, he states, lets developers bide their time.
“If I came before the town with a master plan and I wanted to keep my state approval, it’s a significant amount of money. Now I can say, ‘There’s no market. I’m going to sit on it.”
For the town, it’s a significant difference.
“It’s taxes on 40 undeveloped acres versus taxes on households. Thanks to the legislature, people can now afford to wait.”
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.
“The affordable housing law added the words “for profit” allowing developers to “bypass local regulations. It was a significant change [and] when it happened, 17 applications came in to South County towns and Coventry.”
Deerbrook’s 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.
“Exeter opposed and denied Deerbrook, but now it’s a good thing,” says Schweib. “The developer agreed to more senior units. In retrospect, it could have been worse – and they’re selling like crazy.”
He’s optimistic about the “Vision for Exeter.”
“It’s something that’s 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 – a visioning and public outreach.”
Using money from the foundation and a state challenge grant, Exeter hired consultants to provide final draft ordinances.
“People felt a village or villages would be a good thing,” Schweid explains. “[They thought] dense development would be good if it was tied to preservation of farm and forest land.
“It would [allow] development in locations where the community wants to see it while preserving” other parcels. “It’s an alternative to large land development.”
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 .