Construction warnings and bulldozers will become a common sight around FishHawk Ranch as the developers embark on a major road widening project and building infrastructure for the new Circa FishHawk development.
While the rest of the construction industry around the state continues to feel the pain of the recession, Newland Communities is in the midst of a building boom at FishHawk Ranch.
“FishHawk Ranch is a bright spot for us in Florida,” said Rick Harcrow, senior vice president of operations for Newland Communities, the largest private developer in the country.
“Not all of our communities around the country are doing quite as well as FishHawk Ranch but being a master-planned community with a variety of types of housing has enabled us to continue selling in this market," said Harcrow.
Earlier this year, Builder Developer Magazine named Newland Communities Developer of the Year for its strong position in the marketplace despite a tough economy. And FishHawk Ranch played a major role in that success, said Harcrow.
In addition to offering a variety of housing, Harcrow believes value and amenities have played a role in the community’s success, pointing to the popularity of FishHawk Ranch for military families stationed at MacDill Air Force Base.
“While we don’t actively market to the military community, the military families have managed to find us,” said Harcrow. “One reason is accessibility but they’re also attracted to our A-rated schools and amenities such as skate park, aquatic club and parks.
"The military families are a big part of FishHawk Ranch and we embrace that community. MacDill is the largest employer in this market," said Harcrow. "And we've been careful to accommodate that community. "We helped organize two express buses to MacDill daily. Plus, if you're enlisted and deployed, Newland will step in and take care of your property until you come home. For those left behind, the FishHawk ranch community is great place to be socially connected."
FishHawk Ranch also was recently certified a "green community," the first large master-planned community to receive the honor, said Harcrow.
"It really speaks to the planning of the community, winning an award for sustainable planning and design under today’s standards," said Harcow. "We were very proud of that. The planning principles and design set the foundation to be sustainable community. You see a lot of parks that are left natural, all kinds of trails and cool places in natural areas. That’s sort of the nature of FishHawk. It’s a real neat place physically."
Harcrow said the developers will continue their commitment to preserve natural areas. Newland Communities is working with the county to develop a trail from the Alafia River Canoe Outpost through the Environmental Lands and Protection Program properties that have been reserved along the river corridor to the west side of the Starling development, currently under construction in FishHawk Ranch.
"We have about 30 miles of trails now and, as we develop on the north side and Circa FishHawk, we'll partner with ELAPP to develop many more miles of trails," said Harcrow.
Pointing to continued diversity, Harcrow noted the developer launched its Starling development during the past year, a smaller house intended to accommodate the empty-nester.
“Starling is selling very well,” said Harcrow. “We haven’t had a smaller product in FishHawk before.”
In addition, Newlands is preparing to launch the development of its Circa FishHawk, located south of FishHawk Ranch off Boyette Road.
“We’ll probably bring that community on-line in the spring of 2013,” he said, adding that the developer has filed a notice of proposed change for the master-planned community, originally planned by Pulte Homes as the Lake Hutto project and subsequently purchased by Newland.
Newland is asking to scale back the project by 18.7 percent, eliminating some of the housing and adding retail to the project.
Originally approved to be developed with 3,200 homes on the 1,130-acre property, the former Lake Hutto development planned by Pulte Homes would have been the largest housing developments in southeastern Hillsborough County.
Newland Communities, which bought the property from Pulte Homes in 2007, submitted its revamped plans for the development last year.
The plan the developers of FishHawk Ranch do want to see entails about 2,600 homes and more office and retail space than before.
In the first phase of the development, Newland expects to build about 1,800 housing units consisting of single-family homes, town-homes and apartments on 710 acres slated for Circa FishHawk.
The company will develop the remaining land and homes at another phase of Starling, a section of FishHawk Ranch located north of FishHawk Boulevard.
“The original DRI (Development of Regional Impact) was approved back in 2006,” said Harcrow. “That plan was done by another national developer and is not the plan Newland wants to develop. So when we purchased Lake Hutto in 2007, our first task was to completely redo the plan and make it similar to the way we developed FishHawk Ranch.”
In addition to reducing the density, Newland is asking for a longer time-line for development.
“We’re asking for a slower-paced, more methodical development,” he said. “The market is dramatically different than what was originally planned. There was quite a bit of attached housing in the original and we’re primarily a single-family developer so we have completely redesigned the site plan and are asking to build it over a longer period of time.”
Under the original DRI, the development would have been built out by next year.
“But we’re not even commencing housing until 2013 and will continue to build over seven to eight years. Our objective is not just to build houses in three to four years,. Circa FishHawk is a logical expansion of the FishHawk community and we want it to complement the community that already exists.
As part of the downsizing of the community, Newlands is asking to be relieved of some of the transportation improvements required under the original plan including the widening of Bell Shoals Road from Boyette Road to Bloomingdale Avenue.
When the DRI was approved, the developer was mandated to make $72 million in road improvements, including widening Lithia-Pinecrest and Bell Shoals roads. In its filing to the county planning office, Newland said it wants to decrease money for infrastructure improvements by more than half to $33 million.
“We’re in the mathematical phase of the traffic analysis now,” he said. “The next stage of the review is to identify the magnitude of the improvements that need to be made.
"We know the Bell Shoals Road/FishHawk Boulevard intersection has to be improved, and we’re willing to do that," said Harcrow. "However, as we understand it, the county is widening Boyette Road from the west to the east so we would not be making improvements at the intersection for 18 months. So we’re working with the county to expedite that intersection improvement. The last thing we want to do is widen that intersection and create a bottleneck.”
In the meantime, Newland is proceeding with plans to widen portions of FishHawk Boulevard, he said.
“We expect to have the first phase (a one-mile section from west of Mosaic Drive to Little FishHawk Creek) done by this fall and will roll right into the second phase,” he said. “Each section will take about nine months to complete.
At the same time, Newland is extending Mosaic Drive and Barrington Stowers Boulevard, which will connect with the Circa FishHawk community. Boyette Road south of Bell Shoals Road is currently closed while Newland constructs a roundabout running behind the two new schools with an anticipated late April completion date.
The final project will be the widening and traffic signalization of FishHawk Boulevard from FishHawk Crossing Boulevard to Lithia-Pinecrest Road.
One section of the road that won’t be widened, however, is a section of the road east of Little FishHawk Creek that runs through ELAPP lands. Harcrow said the county has agreed that the environmentally sensitive property should be left as is.