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Pulte Homes sells its land at Pasco's Wiregrass Ranch

Pulte Homes, the nation's top home builder, has pulled out of Wiregrass Ranch, Tampa Bay's largest proposed development.

The dissolution of the partnership between the two housing heavyweights shows how little confidence Florida builders have in a short-term business turnaround.

Pulte called it quits Dec. 30 by selling its 800-acre stake in the Wesley Chapel development to semiretired Tampa developer Bob Sierra.

Pulte paid $12.8 million for the land in 2004, envisioning the first of 2,000 homes on a master-planned development approved for more than 12,000 homes.

Five years and one historic housing slump later, Sierra took the real estate off Pulte's hands for $5 million.

"That's very cheap for that location," Tampa Bay housing analyst Marvin Rose said.

Wiregrass Ranch comprises 5,000 acres east of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. The Porter family assembled the land around World War II for a few bucks an acre. The former owner was a Rockefeller-owned timber company. One piece of the original holdings became Saddlebrook golf and tennis resort.

But as neighboring New Tampa grew as a desirable suburb, Wiregrass found itself sitting on a prime growth corridor close to Interstate 75.

Pulte originally signed on as "master developer" of the housing portion of Wiregrass, but like many publicly traded builders it has spent the past couple of years dumping excess real estate. The acquisition of Centex Homes last year made Pulte the nation's No. 1 builder.

It wasn't just the worst housing market in decades that sapped Pulte's interest. Pasco County tried to extract tens of millions of dollars from the company to pay for roads and other improvements. Turning a profit became problematic.

Wiregrass Ranch is destined for more than just homes. Landowners won permission to build enough stores — 2.7 million square feet — to cram into three shopping malls. Its projected office component — 1.4 million square feet — could fill two downtown Tampa office towers.

With one major exception, the $105 million Shops at Wiregrass mall at Bruce B. Downs and State Road 56, the property remains largely undeveloped.

Wiregrass' fate resembles that of Connerton, a "new town" development off U.S. 41 in Land O'Lakes. Connerton builders managed to sell 200 of an anticipated several thousand homes before the housing market froze them out. The land is for sale.

Sierra's office didn't announce specific plans for the Wiregrass property. Although Sierra built thousands of entry- and mid-level homes in suburbs like Carrollwood in the 1970s, he has focused recently on luxury golf course developments.

His relationship with Pulte goes back about 30 years. When Pulte entered the Tampa Bay market in the early 1980s, it did so by buying Sierra's building company.

Several calls and e-mails to Pulte's and Sierra's offices went unreturned Tuesday.

James Thorner can be reached at jthorner@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3313.

Pulte Homes sells its land at Pasco's Wiregrass Ranch 01/05/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 6, 2010 7:39pm]
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