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Living next-door to emptiness in the burbs

GIBSONTON — She knew it would be awhile before they had next-door neighbors.

But Angie Harris was thinking months, not years.

Home since July has been a tan, four-bedroom, three-bath in Tanglewood Preserve, what was meant to be an upscale suburban refuge that is now full of weed-choked home sites and streets that lead nowhere.

Tanglewood is one of a growing number of empty subdivisions with only a handful of homeowners, or in some cases, none at all. Across the region, more than 25,000 vacant lots bear witness to the real estate bust. Many of the lots have sidewalks, water hookups and electricity — everything but a house.

Harris has a few neighbors down the street, but rows of empty lots separate the homes that dot the Gibsonton development. She doesn't like to let her five children play outside. Even walks in the wagon can seem treacherous.

"Not when the grass is my height," she said, shaking her head. "Who knows what's in there?"

In a nearby cul-de-sac, tire marks are scorched into the pavement. Empty beer and soda cans abound. Just over an embankment lie old couches and television sets. A few blocks over, an abandoned computer chair sits to the side of another empty street.

• • •

Hillsborough County alone has more than 13,000 similar empty lots. The number of "vacant developed lots" has doubled since 2006, said Tony Polito, who tracks home construction for the Tampa office of MetroStudy, a housing consulting firm.

"A lot of these developments were planned back in the heyday, and took so long to get approval that by the time they went through the development phases, demand had already waned," Polito said. "The lot count is the highest we've ever seen. And we've been here since the '80s."

Pasco County comes in second with about 8,400 improved lots awaiting homes. Two years ago, it had 5,200 such lots. The number of vacant lots in Hernando County has dropped slightly since 2006. There, not as many new developments have been started.

At the current pace, it's going to take more than four years for all the developments in Hillsborough to be built out, Polito said. "Even in a more normalized environment, it would still probably be over a two-year supply."

Once, these developments were almost inevitable in an area that seemed to be in a perpetual boom. Until 2005, Tanglewood Preserve was home to a fish farm. Developers hounded the owner to sell his 10 acres as they bought 80 adjacent acres.

Three years later, the subdivision went into foreclosure. Developers owed more than $9-million to a bank, court records show.

The same thing happened at Triple Creek, another development in eastern Hillsborough County. As roads and signs went up on the 1,000-acre Riverview site, the market tanked. Developers defaulted this year on a $37-million loan.

A few homes, barely finished and lacking driveways, sit in the development. Realtor Becky Troutt blogged a few months ago about the "ghost town," posting a slide show of photos — overgrown grass, toppled trees and broken windows — accompanied by Chopin's Funeral March.

"I'd been wanting to write something about abandoned subdivisions," Troutt said. "One afternoon I went driving through Triple Creek, and when I took a look at my pictures and came across that song, it just seemed so fitting to me. It was just dead."

• • •

For Angie Harris, a funeral dirge might sum up the first few months in her new home.

She and her husband, Gregory, an intelligence officer with the Navy, decided to buy when he was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base. Tired of moving around and recently out of the military herself, Angie wanted to find a house and make a home.

The couple found their 3,000-square-foot Tanglewood house in June. They bought it for $100,000 less than the listed price of $328,000.

The Realtor representing the builder, Richmond American Homes, was up front about the neighborhood, Angie said. Ultimately, the couple decided the home would be a good investment. At some point, Gregory would return and probably continue working at MacDill.

Angie closed on it alone when Gregory went back to Bahrain. The family moved in soon after.

While Gregory was away, a fat tree branch fell on the white fence behind the Harris home. The fence, which separates the subdivision from an adjoining property, permanently leans. Then mold started growing on it.

Harris called the homeowner association, but no one ever came to fix the fence. She later got into a dispute with Richmond Homes about a $600 water bill. Before she moved in, the yard sprinklers spewed 40,000 gallons of water.

A neighbor recently told her that she could be fined by the association for an oil stain on her driveway.

"We're trying to look at the bigger picture," Angie said. "My only problem is with others, like the homeowners' association, not holding up their end of things."

Each time she gets an association bill, she wonders if the promised gazebo and playground will ever be built. She wonders if her kids will ever have playmates or whether she'll ever have other mothers to talk to.

On Halloween, she sent her kids — ages, 2, 4 and 7 and two 9-year-olds — to trick or treat with family in Temple Terrace. At home, she stocked up on candy and turned on the porch light. No one rang her doorbell.

• • •

Getting stuck with leftover candy is hardly the worst of it. Fewer homeowners in a development means fewer people pay association dues. And that can mean that less attention is paid to the upkeep of common areas.

"When there isn't any money coming in, (maintenance) probably is not going to get done very often," said Marvin Rose, a longtime Tampa-area home industry tracker. "And in the case of vacant lots, that shows up in the appearance of the neighborhood, too."

Kent and Cindy Burke don't want to pay for things that aren't getting done in Tanglewood. The couple bought into the development this year. Even as they pay association fees every quarter, illegally dumped trash piles up and the grass rarely gets cut.

Last month, a man was arrested for dumping trash in the subdivision.

"When we retired here, we expected a full community," Kent said. "I suppose we do like the lots on either side of us, but are they going to put homes in here or a dump?"

The answer is probably the former, but it'll be awhile. In northern Hillsborough County, some now-thriving communities had slow starts.

"Yes, those developments and others were a casualty of bad timing in the markets," Rose said. "But you can point to places like Hunters Green, Cheval and, to some extent, Tampa Palms. In the early '90s, they had considerable amounts of vacant home lots as well."

Cheval, a golf community in Lutz with million-dollar homes, was a ghost town for its first few years, Rose said.

"I'm not saying all these communities will turn into Cheval," he said. "But they will eventually fill and people will forget."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Chandra Broadwater can be reached at cbroadwater@sptimes.com, or (813) 661-2454.

By the numbers

There are more than 25,000 vacant lots in the region, according to the housing consulting firm MetroStudy. Here's a look at the current figures compared with 2006:

Hillsborough County: 13,700, up from 6,500

Pasco County: 8,400, up from 5,200

Pinellas County: 1,600, up from 1,100

Hernando County: 3,600, down from 4,100

Living next-door to emptiness in the burbs 11/16/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 18, 2008 8:47pm]

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