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Seasons on Lanier dreams dashed

Adult community residents battling developer’s pullout, gas station plans

POSTED: June 12, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Many houses at Seasons on Lake Lanier were left unfinished and abandoned.

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The first residents of the Seasons on Lake Lanier community have been stuck in time since November.
By the time Levitt & Sons filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on the Browns Bridge Road development, more than 50 homeowners had bought into the dream of a lakeside community for older adults.

That dream included 421 acres for residents in a common age group walking to tennis courts that signs promised would be ready in spring 2008 and a clubhouse complete with indoor and outdoor pools. One day, there would be 10 acres of upscale shopping for them as well.

But on Nov. 9, 2007, the dream looked more like a nightmare.

John Snyder had been taking Spanish courses at Gainesville State College so he could communicate with the construction workers who had been there nearly every day, building out the dream of more than 700 homes.

But all the construction workers were gone by the time Snyder finished his second course, Carolyn Snyder recalled. "This place became a ghost town," she said.

Court documents show that Levitt & Sons owed more than $4 million to the various contractors who designed, graded, built and wired homes for Seasons on Lake Lanier; more than $1.7 million to people who had not been able to close on their homes in time for the bankruptcy but had paid their deposits; and $103.6 million to Wachovia for financing the megadevelopment.

The developers owed similar debts on 37 other developments across Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina when they sought protection under Chapter 11 in November. It is a nightmare from which the residents of Seasons on Lanier have yet to wake up.

Nine months after John and Carolyn Snyder moved in their 2,300-square-foot home, the signs promising tennis courts stand in front of the same pile of gravel and clay that construction workers left early last November.

Seven months after the developers filed bankruptcy, particle boards rot on half-finished houses and temporary power poles protrude in front of them. Snyder says some of the unfinished homes will have to be torn down after suffering so much exposure to the elements.

In two days, the Gainesville City Council will make its final decision on whether that 10 acres of promised upscale retail can be cut free from the planned unit development to allow a little more than an acre for a RaceTrac gas station.

Easlan Capital of Atlanta Inc. had already started negotiating with Levitt & Sons to purchase the 10 acres, which sits on the corner of Browns Bridge and McEver roads, to develop the commercial portion of the Seasons community when Levitt filed for bankruptcy, Easlan partner Jesse Shannon said.

At the time, Easlan had not planned to put a gas station on the property. "We didn't know when we put it under contract who our tenants would be," Shannon said.

But both RaceTrac and QuikTrip approached Easlan, and a market study showed that a gas station would work well at the intersection, Shannon said. Easlan plans to sell 1.6 acres of the 10 to RaceTrac because the convenience store was willing to make the outside of the store have a more high-quality look than a regular gas station.

Easlan would then use another three acres to build 20,000 square feet of stores and restaurants. The other four acres cannot be developed, Shannon said.

"Four acres really can't be developed; it's just too steep. The topography falls off into a canyon," Shannon said.

If the council approves Easlan's bid, Wachovia has promised to put $225,000 -- roughly 15 percent of what the bank will receive from selling the 10 acres to Easlan -- in an escrow account that would be donated to the city for infrastructure needs in the development.

Seasons residents have opposed the rezoning vehemently, with more than 50 of them showing up to council and planning board meetings to oppose the project.

Shannon said his company has tried to negotiate but says the residents, for the most part, did not want to talk about the issue. They have made up their mind that a gas station should not be a part of their development.

"It happens every time we develop a piece of property," Shannon said. "When its done and its built, given our track record, ultimately they'll be very happy with it."

"Right now, they just don't feel that way, and that's life unfortunately," Shannon said. "If we decided not to develop a project every time we had opposition there would be nothing built."

And Easlan probably will not purchase the 10 acres - and the city will not get the money - if the property is not rezoned.

It is one of the few decisions the five-member council does not wholly agree upon. On May 6, when the rezoning came before the group the first time, the council voted 3-2 to approve it. Councilmen George Wangemann and Bob Hamrick opposed it.

Gainesville Mayor Myrtle Figueras voted in favor of the rezoning on May 6. Two weeks later, when the rezoning came up for its final approval, she had not changed her mind. Figueras said the amount of trees and land that stand between the proposed gas station and the homes on the Seasons development will keep the station from affecting the residents' lifestyle.

"I think it would not be detrimental to the people who live there," Figueras said on May 20. "I believe that everybody will be served better by making something happen on the corner and moving forward."
Most of all, Figueras says that it is time for the development to move on from the limbo it has been stuck in since Levitt filed for bankruptcy in November.

"I believe that we could move forward - we need to move forward - because the people have been punished enough because of the bankruptcy. We don't need to be punished anymore. We need to move forward with the development," Figueras said. "... While its not my best scenario ... I still believe that all the people would be served better, because of moving forward."

But Wangemann, who represents the area of Gainesville where the development is located, says that allowing the RaceTrac will not end the nightmare caused by the bankruptcy. Instead, he says, it will make it worse.

"They have been hammered in one big way in that the development corporation went bankrupt, and they've had some infrastructure problems within that development, and now they're being hammered with a proposal for a gas station right next to their development," Wangemann said.

Hamrick recalls the 2005 decision the council made in support of the development, and he is not ready to give it up.

"We were excited and we saw this happen and we saw many, many fine people move into this development. ... I feel it's incumbent upon this council that we try to protect whatever assets are there to see if another developer will come in and sort of pick up the pieces and deliver a product that we envisioned initially, both for the betterment of our city and also the people that are current residents there," Hamrick said at the May 20 meeting. "I think we have that obligation."

At least three developers are interested in acquiring the property, Snyder said. Hamrick says the council should wait at least six months to see what those developers' intentions are.

"I sort of feel that (those developers) should have an opportunity to look at the total project and make decisions what is in the best interest of the complete development of that project," Hamrick said. "He may wind up negotiating with some people that are interested in this corner portion of the development, we don't know, but I think we should protect as much of the assets ... of the project."

John Snyder agrees. If the council votes to rezone the 10 acres on Tuesday, it will have chipped away at the dream that he and other Seasons homeowners bought into: a planned unit development with no auto-related businesses on 421 acres.

"(The council) needs to give the development enough time before people start coming in here and changing it," John Snyder said.

"We just want the chance to get this development going. It could be so pretty," he said. "When this gas station comes, they're going to run these people off, and our community is just going to become a plain old subdivision."



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