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Green Gamble: Bill Thomas’ ‘Agriburbia’ project hasn’t taken root

BILL THOMAS: Thinks Agriburbia is a good fit for Rowan County. Photo by Nell Redmond

As it sits there now, The Farmstead in Rowan County is just another failed and abandoned subdivision.

Developers Bill Thomas and John Fletcher had high hopes in 2007, when they paid about $2.5 million for the 120 acres in Granite Quarry, about 40 miles north of Charlotte.

But then the economy soured, they lost their builder and Fletcher walked away from the project in 2009.

“I ended taking the whole thing over,” said Thomas, president of Concord Builders Inc., which specializes in infrastructure construction. “It wasn’t by choice, but I never walked away from anything in my life, and I don’t plan on walking away from this.”

The Farmstead is hardly the only stalled development in the Charlotte region; empty lots and sad-looking, half-finished communities are scattered everywhere.

But what makes The Farmstead unique is that Thomas is banking on a new subdivision design called Agriburbia to help get his development off the ground.

At its most basic, Agriburbia means using open space around a subdivision for agriculture. The approach calls for communities to have an organic, commercial farm run by a professional farmer who is paid by the homeowners association.

The HOA in turn provides fruits and vegetables to the neighborhood and also sells the crops to local restaurants and stores as a source of revenue. In addition, residents have the option to have a “micro-farm” that’s on their own lot and that they can maintain themselves or turn the job over to the community’s farmer. Homeowners can sell their produce to the community’s supply chain, keep it for themselves or both.

The concept isn’t really new. It harkens to hippy communes and taps into the current popularity of environmental sustainability and new urbanism.

It is the first time these concepts have been packaged and sold as a type of template for mixed-use developments.

But there’s just one catch: It hasn’t been done yet.

If The Farmstead were to come to fruition, it would be the first Agriburbia subdivision in the country. And, Thomas said, that’s part of the appeal right there.

“We needed something different, and this sounded like a great idea,” he said. “I think we can make it work.”

Golden, Colo., geologist and urban planner Matthew Redmond trademarked the term Agriburbia in 2006. Over the past several years, he’s been touring the country, giving lectures and holding workshops about Agriburbia design.

Redmond said there are about 2,000 acres around the country in various stages of Agriburbia entitlement and planning, as well as few small Agriburbia projects, but no full-fledged communities.

“That’s the most discouraging part about the whole situation,” he said. “Even good ideas aren’t getting funded in this economy.”

In 2009, while making the rounds on the lecture circuit, Redmond made a stop at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. There he met Craig George, a principal at DPR Associates, a landscape architecture and civil engineering firm in Charlotte.

George had been working with Thomas on The Farmstead since its inception and had designed it as a conventional subdivision, with a clubhouse and pool. But since it had stalled, he thought the Agriburbia concept might be just what it needed.

George predicts a time in the not-too-distant future when Agriburbia communities are as popular as golf course communities. And he said they have similarities: Like golf courses, the gardens would serve as an amenity and moneymaking enterprise. He also says the concept is cost-effective compared with traditional high-end neighborhoods that have expensive landscape contracts and communal space that has to be maintained.

“With Agriburbia you’re taking that money and putting it into something that produces food and makes money,” George said. “The Farmstead is definitely a trailblazing project. Unfortunately, it hasn’t really gained momentum because of the economic conditions. But I think it’s only a matter of time.”

George told Thomas about the Agriburbia concept, and Thomas paid Redmond about $30,000 to come to Granite Quarry to work as a consultant in 2009 and reinvent The Farmstead with a new Agriburbia design.

A few months after Redmond started working on the project, Fletcher, overextended and in debt, bowed out of the project in August, Thomas said.

“We had a big note at the bank, which I took over,” Thomas said.

Fletcher could not be reached for comment.

Originally, plans called for a 270 single-family/multifamily mixed-use subdivision, with home prices topping out around $300,000 apiece. The new plans included a 15-acre organic fruit and vegetable garden, about 40 acres of green space with hiking trails, an on-site farmer’s market and a learning center, where staff from local colleges would hold workshops about sustainability and organic farming.

Thomas said the homes are likely going to be smaller than originally planned, ranging from 1,500 to 2,400 square feet, to accommodate the micro-farms on individual lots. And there’s likely to be less of them, probably close to around 240 at build-out.

They’ll also be less expensive, priced from the $190,000s to the mid-$200,000s. Thomas said he’s unsure if the community will still have a commercial component.

It all sounded nice, even utopian-like, so much so that Rowan County and the town of Granite Quarry approved all the permits and engineering plans last year.

Thomas claims he’s received dozens of queries about the development and that about 20 potential homebuyers have toured the property. He even had professional farmers from Salisbury lined up to oversee the community’s garden, he said.

And while the property is in rural Rowan County, Thomas says it’s close to Interstate 85 and just a short drive from Kannapolis, Concord and Salisbury.

Nonetheless, Thomas is still faced with the challenge of finding builders. For that, he’s turned to Keith Dacus, a Charlotte real estate developer.

Dacus said he used to work as the Charlotte acquisition and land development manager for Atlanta-based McCar Homes. After the company pulled out of the Charlotte market in 2008, Dacus said went to work for himself. He’s now focusing on The Farmstead.

But so far he’s not having much luck.

Big tract builders, like Ryan Homes and Pulte Homes, are not interested, he said, because they see the project as too rural.

“They’re looking at a very tight radius around Charlotte and are taking advantage of bank-owned properties, which are still fairly plentiful,” he said. “It’s an ongoing reality we’re having to battle.”

Dacus said he’s now trying to land smaller, local builders, such as Landis Reed Homes, which is building in the Antiquity development in Cornelius.

He said he thinks the kind of “Charleston-style” homes Landis builds — they’re around 1,500 square feet with front porches and garages in the back — would help attract the target market: young professionals and older couples looking to downsize.

But like most builders, Landis is still in “safe mode” and doesn’t want to venture too far away from Charlotte, Dacus said.

Regardless of builders’ hesitations to get involved in The Farmstead, Dacus said he’s convinced the Agriburbia concept is innovative and still the best way to salvage the community.

“We’re ahead of the curve, maybe too far ahead of the curve,” he said. “But when the housing market does come back, I think we’re going to really be well positioned.”

Meanwhile, Thomas continues to sit on the 120 acres, praying the economy and housing market turn around soon. And while he still believes in the Agriburbia concept, at this point he’s just ready to sell some real estate.

“I think Agriburbia is a good fit here because of the rural setting and the interest we’ve had,” he said. “But if a builder wanted to come and just build a regular subdivision, I’d do that, too. If they buy the land, they can build anything they want.”

Boykin can be reached at [email protected].

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