Back From the Dead

After bouts with bankruptcy and the housing downturn, a Sahuarita development is roaring back to life

The land was bladed; the roads were paved; the utilities were in place. Large signs indicating the two entrances to Estancia del Corazon had floral touches on them as well as electrical stub-outs for eventual lighting of the signs.

All the neighborhood lacked was homes. About 90 were slated for the development smack-dab in the middle of one of the region's most well-regarded master-planned communities, Rancho Sahuarita.

Estancia had a prime location, across the street from a new K-8 school and a park featuring iron animal sculptures and a pool. It was adjacent to a dog park and just around the corner from a grocery store and other businesses.

But by the time the neighborhood was ready for start-up in 2007, Estancia developer Townsend Homes had gone belly up. Townsend was owned by Prescott resident Elise Townsend, who briefly ran for the Arizona Senate in 2006 before she pleaded guilty to stealing from her company and was sent to prison.

The Townsend bankruptcy affected two communities in Rancho Sahuarita. The other was a 16-lot custom home project along Sahuarita Lake, but much of that development had been built out.

Estancia, despite plenty of interest from prospective homebuyers—including some who had put down deposits on lots—remained empty for nearly five years.

"It was as close to being complete and moving forward as you could get," said Ted Herman, vice president of residential land for Sharpe and Associates, Rancho Sahuarita's master developer.

Then a little more than two months ago, seemingly out of nowhere, activity popped up at Estancia del Corazon. Within days, new property owner D.R. Horton had built two model homes and started the framework for block walls along the development's perimeter.

"They were selling homes before they even got their models finished," said Sahuarita planning director Sarah More, who first got wind of D.R. Horton's intentions for Estancia late last year when it submitted updated plans for review. "It was platted some time ago, and no changes were being made, so everything was ready to go," More said.

As of last weekend, D.R. Horton had sold 32 of the 86 lots in Estancia, according to information provided in the leasing office, which occupies the garage of one of the model homes. About two dozen homes are under construction, and a quick drive through the neighborhood showed that as many as eight may be ready for move-in.

D.R. Horton officials did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

The builder's website lists five models for Estancia, each with up to four bedrooms. One of them can be expanded to six bedrooms and almost 3,500 square feet of living space. Prices start at $198,900 for the smallest base model, well above the median sale price of $140,000 the Tucson Association of Realtors reported for May 2012.

"People have been inquiring to me and others for some time because of the size of those lots," said Tom Murphy, a spokesman for Rancho Sahuarita, referring to the 85-by-120-foot dimensions of the Estancia lots, the largest in the 4,200-home master-planned community.

Murphy said that Rancho Sahuarita's amenities have made the Estancia homes a de facto infill project, rather than a new development far from shopping or parks.

"If you have choices, and you have the amenity package that we have down here, it makes sense," Murphy said.

Jennifer Katsenis, who toured Estancia's models last weekend with her three children, said she and her husband, Rick, had been interested in the neighborhood when it was first set to be built. Now that it's within a thriving community, she said, it's not surprising the homes are selling so quickly.

"There's so much already around here," Katsenis said. "My kids could go to school across the street."

Estancia is a big reason Rancho Sahuarita leads the area in new-home construction. More, the Sahuarita planning director, said her department has issued 247 building permits so far in 2012, more than double the number during the year-earlier period. Of those, 147 were for homes in Rancho Sahuarita.

"The numbers have pretty much taken off since February," More said.

The Estancia project has taken off at the same time that Rancho Sahuarita and Sharpe and Associates are shoring up a wash that runs along Estancia's north edge. The developer is spending about $1 million to remove vegetation and build concrete channels in the wash in an effort to avoid another bout of flooding, which happened last September when several homes in the Presidio del Cielo neighborhood on the north side of the wash were inundated with silt and muddy water.

"Everything that we're doing (in the wash) and would be doing is totally separate and apart from the D.R. Horton project," Murphy said. "We've been working with our professional engineers for the last few months. We're trying to mitigate a sub-100-year event happening again. But it never hurts to show people (looking to move down here) we're on our game."

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