Sarasota Herald-Tribune Back to the Ranch

Walking a treadmill most mornings at the Bath & Racquet Club, he and workout buddy/home builder Albert Sanchez often discussed when the moment would be right for re-starting the sales effort at Dabney's development, The Forest at Hi Hat Ranch.

The time, they agreed a few months ago, has come. So with a new lineup of builders that includes Roy Dupuis' Anchor Builders and Sanchez's Gibraltar Homes, to go with Forest original John Cannon's John Cannon Homes, the development's marketing effort has resumed.

"We are seeing increased activity," said Cannon of his company's overall performance. "We have probably three or four times the activity from '08 to '09. Traffic through the models has increased dramatically. We are at 44 deals year to date, and we were eight or nine all of last year."

"I feel much better about the market than I did six months ago," said Dupuis.

The large-lot development off Clark Road in Sarasota County was launched with considerable fanfare in 2006, and 11 of the 54 lots sold early on.

"We were selling briskly, and then it just came. That market slowdown hit, and it didn't just slow, it stopped," said Dabney, a member of the Turner family that has owned Hi Hat Ranch since the 1940s. "We were fortunate to have the sales we had already made at that time, because we now have nine occupied homes in the development. Two additional lots have been sold but have not been built upon."

Dabney leads a team of Turner family members who make up Sugarbowl Development Co., which is developing The Forest. Brian Wood of Signature Sotheby's International Realty is the on-site sales agent.
Lot-home packages start in the $700,000s. Lot prices range from $190,000 to $450,000, the same as when the development launched in November 2006, but the developer is offering a 25 percent discount on lot prices "for a limited time." Twenty of the remaining 43 lots are priced from $230,000 to $300,000.

But these are not typical lots. Ranging in size from 3.0 to 5.6 acres, they have plenty of room for large homes. Houses must have a minimum of 4,000 square feet with three-car garages. Roy Dupuis is working with one buyer whose house would be 140 feet in width.

"You can't do that too many other places," said Dupuis. "The lots are so big and gorgeous; you have so much latitude in here."
True to its name, The Forest has a lot of trees. Buyers who like the mesic hammock environment -- dominated by dense stands of oaks and sabal palms -- of Myakka River State Park, just a few minutes to the east, will appreciate the view of their backyards in The Forest. It's the same.

"You can see how delicate the footprint has been on each one," said Dabney, referring to an aerial map of the development showing the few existing houses. "We have retained 90 percent of the vegetation on each of the lots."

The Forest has a "no repeat" rule, meaning that no two houses can look alike.

As a condition of joining the development, Anchor Builders and Gibraltar Homes agreed to Sugarbowl Development's "adopt-a-lot" program. Rather than building model homes, which could take two years to design, permit and build, each of the builders have chosen two lots and designed houses for each.

"These are fine builders. They must be, because they survived" the real estate downturn, said Dabney. "Today there is no financing for model homes. Even if we had a magic wand, we are two years from delivery of a model home.

"We can't overcome that lag. So one other thing that 'treadmill time' yielded was the concept we call adopt-a-lot. They (the builders) had to agree to adopt at least one unsold lot in The Forest, design a home for it that meets the deed restrictions and architectural criteria, take it through the architectural review process, get it approved, price it out fully, give a listing to Brian (Wood) so he can put it into MLS as a build-to-suit home.

"There will be a complete house there that is ready to go. We have fast tracked it. Each of the builders have chosen two lots, so we have six homes that are teed up and ready to be knocked down the fairway. That allows buyers to see something when, in fact, we don't have models."

Just one thing: The Forest doesn't have fairways, unlike the area's other upscale large-lot developments east of Interstate 75 that are built around golf courses. The feeling here is much different.

Like a forest. Awakened.

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