APOLLO BEACH — Bulldozers have started pushing dirt again at Waterset, a huge development in southern Hillsborough County that ultimately could boast 6,700 homes.
Newland Communities, which already delivered FishHawk Ranch, MiraBay and Covington Park, redesigned its plans for the 2,350-acre site as a result of the Great Recession.
Now, company officials say, it's full steam ahead for one of the largest housing communities being built in the United States since the market crashed.
But why build a new community when parts of the housing market are still struggling?
"This is the last frontier in southern Hillsborough County," Rick Harcrow, senior vice president of operations for Newland, said. "I don't know any builder who isn't bullish about the spring buying season in 2013. This is a long-term investment."
About 214 homes will anchor the first phase when the community opens in September. Newland has picked David Weekley Homes, Cardel Homes, Ashton Woods Homes and Homes by WestBay to start the project.
Sizes will range from 1,400 square feet to 3,200 square feet with prices between $160,000 and $300,000.
The first eight phases will include about 3,800 homes. Newland is still planning how to develop the land remaining after that. But there's enough room for a total of 6,700 homes.
"It's one of the largest in the country," said Brad Hunter, chief economist at Houston-based research firm Metrostudy, which tracks the construction industry. "(Newland) is a top-flight development company. They're on the move."
San Diego-based Newland is managing 28 master-planned communities in 14 states, making it one of the largest developers in the country.
Waterset will include prominent lakes and water elements, playing off the proximity to Tampa Bay. A 12-foot-wide esplanade will run about 4 miles through the center. Miles of other walking paths will traverse the area. An amenity center, including a cafe, will offer more than the usual prices and brochures for potential customers. Later phases will include schools, townhomes and limited commercial space.
Newland officials stressed that the community will be a central area for all of Apollo Beach, not just Waterset residents.
Craig Beggins, who owns Century 21 Beggins Enterprises in Apollo Beach, is excited because of Newland's reputation developing master-planned communities. Apollo Beach, he said, needs a housing development with everything clustered around a central area like FishHawk Ranch, with its 4,000 homes.
"There's really no developer for Apollo Beach," he said. "This is going to give cohesiveness to southern Hillsborough County."
Newland conceived the project in 2004 and spent between $70 million and $80 million for the project's infrastructure including some roads. It put the project on hold in 2007 as the housing market cratered.
Before the bust, Newland designed Waterset with 80-foot-wide lots for homes with more than 3,500 square feet. The new lots will be between 50 feet and 70 feet.
With lower prices and rock-bottom mortgage rates forecast to last two more years, Newland expects to lure not only retiring baby boomers from the Midwest and Northeast but buyers already in the region. About 50 percent of FishHawk buyers come from the area.
"This has become attractive because of the price points," said Alex McLeod, a Newland vice president who is heading Waterset. "People can afford to live here again."
The Tampa Bay Times reported last month that builders are scurrying to buy vacant land and large, empty developments with roads and other infrastructure in place ready for homes to be built.
Builders see the trend as the beginning of a bay area housing renaissance. As unemployment has slowly dropped in the region, home sales and median prices are inching upward. Still, builders have yet to start building many new homes. FishHawk Ranch topped the region with 219 housing starts last year.
Willy Nunn helped start Homes by WestBay in 2010 and became the top dollar-volume builder in FishHawk Ranch and MiraBay last year. The firm closed 68 homes, with an average price of about $400,000 in 2011.
Most customers came from military and corporate relocations, empty nesters and people moving up to bigger houses, he said. He expects the same types of customers at Waterset.
"There is a premium on strong locations," he said.
Tony Polito, a housing consultant with Tampa's Metrostudy, said it makes sense for Newland to start Waterset as FishHawk is filling up. But he cautioned that it might take several years for Waterset to see robust sales.
"Newland has a strong reputation," he said. "They do everything first rate. It shows in the way they lead the market."
Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.