Because of "the severe and broad market downturn" in residential construction, Centex Homes last Friday abruptly abandoned its 349-unit project at Bealeton.
The announcement stunned county officials.
"I never saw it coming," Fauquier County Planning Commissioner John Meadows (Lee District) said. "It is one of the most disappointing things I've experienced. I can't even begin to say how disappointing this is."
Centex Division Manager Joseph Ricketts called Meadows first with the bad news.
Meadows, whose district includes the Freedom Place site, had worked closely with Centex representatives, citizens and county staff to craft what he considered the standard for all future mixed-use proposals.
The approved Freedom Place concept calls for an array of housing types, plenty of open space, trails, sites for a volunteer fire station and a YMCA and shops and offices.
"It's extremely disappointing that Bealeton is not going to get all the things [the Freedom Place project envisioned]," Meadows said. "I don't know if anybody can come through with the package Centex did....It's what our economy could do to us."
The Dallas-based builder also promised the county tens of millions in cash to offset Freedom Place's demand for services, including public education, roads, public safety and the library.
The 344-acre Freedom Place site lies within the Bealeton Service District at U.S. 17 and Route 28.
Meadows learned of Centex's decision early Friday afternoon, less than one day after the planning commission approved a preliminary site plan for Freedom Place.
The Ricketts telephone call lasted five to 10 minutes, Meadows said.
"It was basically a one-sided conversation," the Lee District planner said. "I could tell real fast where the conversation was headed. I knew one of two things was going to happen, and the worst did."
Ricketts "was going to congratulate" the Centex staff for its work on Freedom Place, "or the project was dead."
Meadows described Ricketts's tone as "apologetic" but "businesslike."
Ricketts couldn't be reached for comment but he issued a statement Friday afternoon explaining Centex's decision.
"For the past four years, we have acted in good faith and have spent large sums of money and effort to take Freedom Place from rezoning to the preliminary plat approval stage," he said. "Unfortunately, the severe and broad market downturn has forced our company to take a more conservative stance, and we have instructed that there are insufficient resources for Centex to continue at Freedom Place."
The decision proved particularly surprising because Centex representatives gave Meadows no indication the project was imperiled during a telephone conversation on Wednesday, the day before the planning commission's preliminary plat vote.
In a conference call, Meadows and Centex director of community development Andrew Vinisky and Centex lawyer John Foote spoke at length about Freedom Place.
"I asked specifically is this project in jeopardy at all," Meadows recalled. "They said, 'Absolutely not. This project is full speed ahead'."
Fauquier Supervisor Chester Stribling (Lee District) learned about Freedom Place's fate in a telephone call from Meadows Friday afternoon.
"I'm still in shock," said Stribling, who, like Meadows, heralded Freedom Place as a model for future rezoning proposals. "The saddest thing is we're losing a lot of amenities. It was a full proffer package."
Ricketts also called Stribling.
"In a nutshell [Freedom Place] is gone," the Lee District supervisor said Ricketts told him. "The project's gone, because of the economic downslide."
"In terms of [Centex] priorities, this one had to get the ax," Stribling said Ricketts told him. "They had to downsize, and everybody is. He laid it on the market."
In his statement, Ricketts said the company would "work diligently to facilitate a transfer to any qualified companies that wish to complete that part of the vision for Bealeton."
But Stribling doubts the viability of the Freedom Place project in the current housing market.
"I'll be honest," he said. "I don't know who could afford it."
Centex's decision to drop a high-profile project like Freedom Place also raises questions about it commitment to the 298-home, seniors-only Arrington Knolls proposal along Warrenton's southwestern edge.
The company wants Town of Warrenton and county approval to include a portion of the Arrington Knolls site within the town.
The residential portion must be annexed for Centex to acquire municipal sewer connections to serve the project, which also would include a vineyard, winery, and a restaurant and small store associated with the winery.
In July 2006, Centex suddenly withdrew a similar plan because of poor market conditions.
It had promised to give the town $22 million and Fauquier $1.2 million to support the annexation plan.
Under the new annexation plan, Centex would give Warrenton about $15 million. Fauquier would get no cash from the luxury homebuilder.
In his statement, Ricketts said the company plans to go forward with the project but suggested that could change.
Centex understands that dropping the Freedom Place project "may affect public perception as to our willingness and ability to continue to develop Arrington Knolls," he wrote. "We have invested significant capital into this proposed community over the past three months, and we continue to do so. Like every Centex project, Arrington Knolls is undergoing review by corporate management, but at present the Centex D.C. Metro Division has been instructed to proceed with this application."
Still, Stribling has his doubts.
"I wouldn't be surprised if Arrington Knolls doesn't die also," he said.
In an interview last week, before the Centex announcement, Board of Supervisors Chairman Harry Atherton (Marshall District) said, "We're in the process of getting [an annexation] resolution together to see where my board stands and where the Town of Warrenton is. It's a bit of a guessing game. We're moving forward."
"If they're [Centex] thinking about bailing out [on the Arrington Knolls project], those signals should be on the way" now," Atherton said. "It would save a lot of time and energy if they wanted more time and say so.
"My impression was this was one of their marquee projects, and they might walk away from other projects, but not this one."
The Freedom Place action comes on the heels of Centex's recent proposal to establish an independent development authority in partnership with Culpeper County, to speed the extension of water and sewer service to the company's Clevenger Village project at U.S. 211 and Route 229 in Culpeper.
In light of the weak housing market, accelerated extension of utilities to the site would allow Centex to build the project's commercial component sooner than initially anticipated.
The Culpeper Board of Supervisors approved 398,000 square feet of retail and office space for Clevengers Village.
It also would allow Centex to build up to 774 homes.
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