LAND O’LAKES — On a gorgeous weekday afternoon, two women are sitting on the porch of the Bexley Club, sipping tall drinks as they gaze out over a lake.
Inside, a couple is enjoying lunch. Two men, beers in hand, lean against the bar.
What’s unusual about this scene isn’t that all six have chosen an attractive spot for a midday break. It’s that none of them actually lives in Bexley, one of Pasco County’s newest master planned communities.
"This is really one of those hidden gems,’’ Pam Parisi says of the Bexley Club and cafe. "It’s a great way for potential buyers to meet residents. We’d rather have them tell the story than us.’’
Parisi is vice president of marketing for Newland Communities, the California-based company that is transforming 1,733 piney acres in southern Pasco County into a nearly self-contained town with its own school, parks, hotel and emergency clinic. Some 100 families already have moved in, including Van Howard, his wife and daughter.
"We love the community, we love the house, it’s just been ideal for us,’’ Howard tells anyone who asks. His brother and their parents also live in Bexley.
And the Howard clan is just in the vanguard.
Since a year ago September, work has begun on 215 more homes. That puts Bexley No. 7 among the top 10 planned communities in the Tampa Bay area — all of them in Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
As the area’s new-home market enjoys its best year since the recession, Hillsborough is still the most active county for construction starts. But thanks to communities like Bexley, Starkey Ranch and Wiregrass, Pasco is seeing an impressive spurt.
In the three months ended in September, Hillsborough’s market share dropped two percentage points , to 55.5 percent, while Pasco’s share grew by two percentage points, to 31.4 percent. Six of the 10 most active communities were in Pasco.
"It was only a few years ago that not a single Pasco community was in the top 10,’’ says Tony Polito, regional director of Metrostudy, which tracks housing starts.
Helping to drive Pasco’s new-home growth is relatively inexpensive land and the large number of "vacant developed lots’’ — those in areas where streets, sewers and other infrastructure already are in place.
Also in Pasco’s favor are the multiple ways to get to Tampa.
"You basically have several points of access,’’ Polito notes, ticking off U.S. 19, East Lake/Mitchell Road, the Suncoast Parkway, U.S. 41 and Interstate 75. In southern Hillsborough, where hundreds of new homes are going up, ‘‘you only have U.S. 41 and the interstate,’’ he says.
Proximity to the Suncoast Parkway is a major selling point for Bexley, whose entrance on Highway 54 is less than a quarter mile east of the toll road. That puts Bexley several minutes closer to Tampa than two other planned communities in the area — Asturia and Starkey Ranch.
"We’re the trifecta up here along the Suncoast,’’ Parisi says. "We all play nice and I think there are enough home shoppers for everyone.’’
Newland Communities, which developed FishHawk Ranch, Waterset and Mira Bay in Hillsborough, bought the Bexley property before the recession from a local cattle-ranching family of the same name. Then "we, like many others, hit the pause button in the downturn,’’ Parisi says.
As the economy improved, Newland revived the project with substantial changes.
"I know Bexley looks a lot different than if it opened 10 years ago,’’ Parisi says. "When you go through an economic downturn , it gives you a better perspective on what’s important. It is family, and people want to spend more time together.’’
To foster community spirit, Newland built the clubhouse/cafe to serve as a gathering spot as well as a sales center. It plans to add a bike shop with sales and rentals for those who want to pedal along internal trails that eventually could connect to the 42-mile Suncoast Trail.
Among other features that went in early: Two community pools, a game room, a BMX course, jogging trails with fitness stations and rustic-looking playgrounds designed by a North Carolina company. Bexley Elementary School opened in August and can be reached without getting on Highway 54.
"It was really important to have this completed as soon as we could,’’ Parisi says of the amenities. "If I buy a house today, this is ready to use’’ — unlike the case with some boom-time subdivisions that axed planned amenities after the housing bust.
Lennar, David Weekley and four other companies are building in Bexley’s initial phase, which includes single family homes, apartments, townhomes and Pasco’s first "courtyard homes" — four homes built around a common courtyard. Prices range from $240,000 to $700,000.
Among the first to buy a house by CalAtlantic (since acquired by Lennar) were Van and Vicki Howard.
For 17 years, they had lived further east in Pasco so their youngest daughter could attend the top-rated George M. Steinbrenner High School. After she graduated, they wanted to downsize but stay in the Highway 54 area.
"We looked at everything in this corridor and Bexley was No. 1,’’ Van Howard says. "I love the old Florida architectural styles they’ve brought in here and with the number of builders, it’s not just cookie-cutter houses.’’
Howard travels for his church organ business, so he also liked that Bexley is so close to the Suncoast Parkway. After he and his wife contracted for a house, his brother and parents decided to get their own homes in Bexley.
All three families moved in last summer.
The Howards make ample use of Bexley’s amenities, including the dog park, pool, fitness center and clubhouse. The community "is really well laid out,’’ Howard says, ‘‘and they take really good care of all the common areas.’’
Thanks to families like his, Bexley’s sales so far have exceeded expectations, Parisi of Newland says. When built out, the community’s first phase will have 1,200 homes and 300 apartments.
A second phase could include 11,000 homes and 600 apartments.
Impressive as that sounds, it’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the number of single- and multi- family housing units Pasco officials have approved:
At least 79,454 — enough to hold well over 100,000 more residents.
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate