Wednesday, October 27, 2021

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Builder pitches new plans for townhome development in Whitsett

A Greensboro-based homebuilder faced a distinctly tough sell last week as it presented its own vision for a townhome community that another developer had previously proposed in the small town of Whitsett.

Representatives of Keystone Homes ultimately appeared before Whitsett’s town council last Tuesday to unveil their revised plans for Hudson Way – a retiree-oriented subdivision that developer Paul Milam had originally received the town’s permission to build off of U.S. 70 in 2018.

Keystone, which purchased this project’s 24.5-acre site in the spring of 2019, has opted to retain the development’s name as well as the conditional zoning that Milam had originally received from the town. But the Greensboro-based homebuilder has also made some substantial changes to the development’s plans, including a 50 percent increase in the number of homes which the previous owner had planned to construct.

Keystone’s decision to raise Milam’s 80-some units to a new total of 120 initially drew a cool reception from Whitsett’s town council when its members learned of the increase in June. In fact, Whitsett’s mayor Richard Fennell flatly declared his intention to vote down the plans when he and his colleagues were briefed on the changes during a town council meeting that month.

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It was with this admonition in mind that Keystone rallied its heaviest hitters to appear before the council during its latest regularly-scheduled meeting last Tuesday. Among those who took a crack at this public relations repair job was Amanda Hodierne, an attorney in the homebuilder’s employ. Last week, Hodierne tried to reassure the council that her client had every intention of adhering to the conditions that the town had imposed on Milam three years ago.

“We’re going forward with the existing zoning that you guys put in place in 2018,” she told the town’s elected leaders. “When we buy a site previously zoned, we understand that these conditions are the law. It’s the same as if they were printed in your adopted regulations.”

Hodierne went on to emphasize that the changes which Keystone has made to the project are still within the parameters that the council previously established. She added that her client will, consequently, have no reason to submit another rezoning request to the council – and will merely need its pro forma approval as the project’s preliminary and final plats clear the town’s staff-level technical review process.

The council heard some additional details about the project’s revised plans from Keystone’s cofounder Scott Wallace, who was especially eager to allay any concerns about the proposed increase in homes.

Wallace assured the council that the 120 dwelling units which he intends to build are well within the density limits established by the site’s zoning. He also stressed that these residences would be the same sort of attached, single-family “twin homes” that Milam had proposed to the council and would, likewise, target the same older, empty-nester demographic.

Wallace suggested that, if the town’s leaders want to get a sense of what these dwellings would look like, they can visit any of the other retiree-oriented subdivisions that Keystone has built in the area.

“You have Weybridge [in Burlington] about a mile down the road from Hudson Way, and that’s a very, very, very good indication of what we’re doing in Whitsett,” he told the council.

“We don’t do vinyl box houses; active adult houses is what we do,” Keystone’s cofounder added. “Since the Great Recession, our company has been the largest townhome builder in the Triad.”

Wallace went on to provide some particulars about the dwellings that he intends to construct in Hudson Way. He told the council that bulk of the subdivision will consist of single-story townhomes, although he acknowledged that he’ll use a one-and-a-half story template for 36 of the 120 units. Wallace added that this so-called “Kingston” model features an upstairs bed and bath that can serve as a sort of “mother-in-law” quarters or a spare bedroom whenever an adult child visits. In either case, he said that he expects the homes in this development to fetch between $300,000 and $400,000 based on the current sale prices of comparable residences.

Wallace also didn’t neglect to address the council’s concerns about the sheer number of homes that he has in store for the subdivision.

“It seems like a lot of units,” he conceded, “but from our perspective, you have to have enough scale to pay for the infrastructure, and there’s a lot of infrastructure here. We not only have one water quality pond, but we have two. There’s going to be a very expensive road widening project along Highway 70…It’s going to be six figures, and you have to have enough scale to support that.”

Keystone’s presentation drew a rather ambivalent response from the members of Whitsett’s town council. The departures from Milam’s original plans proved particularly galling for councilman Lee Greeson, who reminded the homebuilder’s representatives that he and his colleagues had pledged their credit with the town’s residents when they approved the previous developer’s rezoning request.

“This is a lot to swallow,” Greeson added. “We don’t know what we’re going to have to deal with as far as the community. Come next election, none of us might be here.”

The fact that it has taken this long for Keystone to present its revisions also came in for some reprimands from Whitsett’s administrator Ken Jacobs. Echoing Greeson’s unease about a potential outcry from the public, Jacobs insisted that the company should’ve been prompter in heeding his repeated requests for updates on the project’s development.

“We spent taxpayers’ money to get this project rolling, and it just sits there for three years and nothing’s done,” he protested. “I stood up in front of the [audience at the] public hearing [in 2018] and said ‘we’re won and done.’ Now, I feel like I’ve got egg on my face.”

In response to the critique of Keystone’s extended silence, Hodierne assured the council that her client will be in close contact with the town’s leaders now that it has a workable plan for the project.

“I would say that good things are worth waiting for,” she added.

Meanwhile, Wallace extended his pledge to the town’s leaders that they’ll be quite satisfied with the results of his company’s efforts – which he insisted won’t be very long in the offing.
“You’re going to get an even better community, and you’re going to get a lot more tax revenue,” he asserted. “We’re anxious to get started,” the company’s cofounder added.

“We’re hoping to start building homes in six months, nine months, ten months.”

Lee Bryant, a civil engineer who has worked on this project since its inception, told the town council that a preliminary plat will soon be ready for its approval – which Hodierne noted should more or less be automatic as long as Keystone has everything in order.

In the end, even the town’s mayor seemed to find comfort in the homebuilder’s elaborations and promises.

“We realize the conditions are what they are, and the zoning is what it is,” Fennell told Keystone’s representatives. “I just want you to understand where we’re coming from. We’re going to have to answer a lot of questions…We have to talk to our citizens and say why this project has increased by 40 units…and I think y’all have done a pretty good job of explaining that to us.”

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