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Living in seclusion
Economy, other factors, leaves many stranded in unfinished subdivisions
0817viewpoint3 RW
One of many unfinished houses sits amid unkept lots still littered with debris inside the Seasons on Lanier community off Browns Bridge Road. So many homes sit unfinished the active adult community resembles a ghost town.
Brochures in hand, Carol and John Eggerding had imagined life in a close-knit community by Lake Lanier, staring at mountain vistas and rubbing elbows at the clubhouse.

Little did they know they would wake up to a nightmare in their cul-de-sac dream home at Seasons on Lanier.

The developer, Levitt and Sons, facing financial troubles, had pulled up stakes, abandoning the 744-lot subdivision to the few residents living there and people taking steps to settle there.

"They hadn't paid any of their bills, so all the lights on the street went out," recalled Eggerding, looking down the street of unfinished houses, some with dirt yards and unshingled roofs.

"It's the first time in my life I ever felt really trapped."

The Eggerdings are not alone in the world of homeowners living in half-built neighborhoods, where lots with knee-high weeds outnumber the manicured lawns, sidewalks suddenly stop and "the sense of community" has been replaced by a ghost-town feel.

The nation's housing downturn and other factors - such as Levitt and Sons' own financial woes - have put the brakes on many developments. Developers have stopped putting up "speculative houses," or homes expected to lure buyers to a certain design or model.

Building permits and occupancy certificates have plummeted this year in Hall County.

The county has issued 233 permits so far this year, compared to 998 last year, and 81 occupancy certificates so far this year, compared to 742 last year. The numbers don't include incorporated areas.

But while there "are many unfinished subdivisions in the county, that is not necessarily a reflection on the housing market," said Nikki Young, spokeswoman for the county.

"There are very large communities, like Reunion or Village at Deaton Creek, that are still under construction and are doing well. And there are plenty of new subdivisions that are just getting off the ground. So while you may see a large number of unfinished subdivisions in Hall County, it does not mean that houses aren't selling."

Nick Whitmire, a Realtor with Keller Williams Realty, which is marketing properties at Mundy Mill subdivision in Gainesville, said that homes in Magnolia Park, the higher-priced neighborhood in the megadevelopment, aren't selling at the clip that can be found in Creekside, Mundy Mill's lowest-priced community.

Frank Norton Jr., president of Norton Realty, which operates a service monitoring real estate trends throughout the region, said that in terms of unfinished subdivisions, Hall County has not suffered as badly as neighboring counties.

"Seasons on Lanier is probably one of the largest (developments) and most disappointing because the developer had declared bankruptcy without finishing houses or infrastructure," he said.

"For it to get started, you're going to need to have the clubhouse finished, amenity packages finished for anyone buying in there to regain confidence in the development."

Residents who have bought into large neighborhoods often are seeking a particular lifestyle.

"If they are moving from an outside community to here, they want connectivity to something. Gainesville is a big, strange place and, at least in the neighborhood, they have personal interaction," Norton said.

The Eggerdings had moved from Smyrna to escape stressful jobs and a hectic pace on Interstate 285.

Eggerding said her husband's words were "I'm going to take you away from all this."

Now, when she looks down her street, which has picked up a couple of other recent neighbors, she reflects on what went wrong and what could be.

"It's just so sad, I think, because the place could be so beautiful. It's terrible to say, but I think I've almost become used to it. ... We've tried to make the best of what isn't an ideal situation.

"Every Saturday morning, we can sleep to 9 o'clock. There's no construction, so you look on the bright side."

Seasons has formed an active homeowners association that has committees and a social calendar. Eggerding said two model homes have been converted into a clubhouse.

"We have some really wonderful people here who have dedicated themselves to making (Seasons) a community," she said.

John Wieland Homes took over permits on four homes at the development, said Larry Brown, inspection services manager for Gainesville.

"Hopefully, Mr. Wieland plans to continue building out there. We hope so," he said.

A security guard has been provided for Seasons' residents, adding some comfort for Eggerding and others.

Other subdivisions in Hall look isolated from the road. In a drive through a few of them last week, only a few residents were at home during the daytime and those walking around declined to comment about their secluded lifestyles.

Jim Mumpower, a real estate agent trying to sell properties in Bluffton subdivision in East Hall, has a sign planted in a vacant lot near the entrance off U.S. 129.

"I do most of the (marketing) from Web sites and people coming up and down the busy roads, (but) it's slow, very slow," Mumpower said of business, which he has been dealing in for 10 years.

"For homes, this is the slowest I have seen it in that period of time."

The slowdown has hit other side businesses as well, such as building inspections.

"We were at the point, before it hit, of adding inspectors," Brown said. "The slowdown has let our guys ... focus on commercial (developments). The work has slowed down, but our guys are still busy on the commercial work.

"We're still hoping for the residential to come back as quickly as possible. There are a lot of people out of work - a lot of our contractors are suffering because of it."

Norton is optimistic. He said he believes the housing downturn "has hit bottom."

"Our sales have improved, inventories are shrinking (and) there is 40 percent less new homes on the market today than at the peak (of the downturn)," Norton said.

"I've been in this business 52 years, since I'm 52 years old," he added, referring to his growing up in the real estate business. "Being at the dinner table (through) all the different cycles, this is just a cycle."

Eggerding said she and her few neighbors are "forever hopeful."

"We just want someone to come in here and make (Seasons) what it could be," she said.

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