- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Following a challenging close to 2013 that saw what they see as government instability that threatened much of the progress made in the housing industry since the Great Recession, executives with The St. Charles Cos. are encouraged that recent trends indicate a market back on the rise.
During the company’s annual meeting with the Charles County commissioners last week, Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) asked whether the county’s housing market had fully emerged from the recession.
“I realize that perception is not always reality, but if you do drive through St. Charles on St. Charles Parkway, Billingsley Road, Piney Church Road, you see a lot of construction activity,” Robinson said.
“I think we would characterize it as fits and starts,” said Craig J. Renner, vice president of marketing and public relations at St. Charles, adding that the federal government shutdown last fall “threw a big dose of cold water on the progress that had been made in the housing recovery since 2008.”
“There were two quarters there that were very difficult for builders and developers, and not just in Charles County, throughout the region,” he said. “It’s been improved in the second quarter, but I would say it’s too early to say that it’s recovered.”
St. Charles Cos. President Matthew M. Martin said a spike in interest rates last August coupled with rising home prices to slow down sales.
“When you have an increase in price and an increase in interest rates, suddenly that house that has a nice monthly payment isn’t so affordable anymore, so that was a big driver,” he said.
A cold winter kept the market tepid, but positive indicators in the second quarter of 2014 have the market once again trending up, Martin said.
“It was a struggle to get out of the fourth quarter. It was a struggle this first quarter, but we are now starting to see signs of life again,” he added. “Traffic is increasing, prices continuing to remain stable and increasing slightly, and sales are picking up a little bit, so we’re optimistic that things are settling in, and life is getting better.”
The company is currently working on a number of economic development projects, “most notably” the 650-megawatt natural gas-fired electric plant planned to be built by Silver Spring-based Competitive Power Ventures on Billingsley Road near the county landfill, Renner said.
A lawsuit filed by three utilities ordered to purchase energy from the plant delayed the project after it was approved by state energy regulators in April 2012, but the litigation has been resolved, and CPV recently made a $2 million in lieu of taxes payment to the county. Renner said St. Charles plans to close on the deal this month, with construction of the plant slated to begin within the next 18 months.
Martin said past studies have concluded that St. Charles generates $1.25 in economic benefit for every $1 of county services it receives. He estimates that figure would increase to $1.50 once the plant opens.
“St. Charles makes a unique commitment to make sure that our community is fiscally self-sustaining, that we’re generating more than enough property tax revenues to pay for our ongoing development, but historically what it’s shown is that St. Charles provides a net tax revenue for Charles County,” Renner said.
A 67-bed nursing home is set to open in November on the corner of Billingsley Road and St. Charles Parkway, and 200 active-adult apartments have been proposed for the same site, Renner said. A 213-unit apartment complex known as Gleneagles III also will begin leasing this winter, he said.
In preparation for the opening of the new St. Charles High School, the company also expects to complete work this month on the $2.1 million portion of Piney Church Road from Regency Furniture Stadium to La Plata Road — Route 488.
Construction of a pump station behind the new Dash In gas station at St. Charles Parkway and Billingsley Road is also set to wrap up next month. The $17 million project — which includes the installation of a main extending along St. Charles Parkway from Post Office Road to Billingsley Road — will serve Carrington, Bannister, Huntingtown and all Fairway Village neighborhoods, plus future residential and commercial development in and out of St. Charles. The company is paying for 80 percent of the project, while the county is funding the remaining 20 percent.
Renner said St. Charles is “absolutely committed” to replacing the trees that have been taken down along St. Charles Parkway as part of the project but later cautioned that, “Because they were tall mature trees, it’s not going to look exactly like it did.”
Of the 9,229 acres within St. Charles, half are set aside for 24,730 residential units; while 25.7 percent is designated for open space and neighborhood centers; 16.5 percent for commercial or industrial zones; and 7.7 percent for schools, roads, pump stations and other infrastructure.
Proposed master plan revisions will increase the overall land zoned for commercial development, Renner said.
“One of the things that sometimes gets lost is St. Charles represents approximately 2 percent of the county’s land mass, and if 50 percent of St. Charles is residential land, that means 24,730 residential dwelling units will reside on 1 percent of the county’s land, and that’s smart growth,” Martin said. “That’s putting high density and using as little land as possible to put your residential dwelling units so that we can preserve the most amount of land.”
At the end of the company’s presentation, Martin said he was prepared to offer a settlement during open session on the “elephant in the room,” pending litigation between the county and St. Charles regarding school allocations.
“We’re happy to present this publicly,” Martin said. “We have nothing to hide.”
County Attorney Barbara Holtz said the offer came as a “total surprise” and asked that the matter be delayed until the attorney representing the county in the case could be present.
“I’m not sure that this is an appropriate time or place for it,” Holtz said.
“The reason why we’re bringing this forward is we want to make sure that we’re a part of the litigation, the commissioners are a part of the litigation. We would like an opportunity to present the settlement directly to you so it doesn’t get lost in translation from our attorneys to your attorneys back to you,” Martin said.
With commissioners’ President Candice Quinn Kelly (D) recusing herself, the remaining four board members agreed to receive Martin’s proposal in closed session but did not act on the offer.
Renner declined to share details of the offer Thursday, citing the commissioners’ desire to handle the matter in the closed session.