Fifteen years after North Charleston jumped across the Ashley River to annex the 6,600-acre Watson Hill tract in a legal tussle that stretched over six years to the Supreme Court, land clearing has begun for the development of 950 homes on Ashley River Road.
Atlanta-based homebuilder Ashton Woods started construction this month on part of a nearly 500-acre tract it acquired earlier this year for $20 million.
The first 154 acres, across from Mateeba Gardens Road, will house about 300 or so single-family units, according to Robert Norton, division president for Ashton Woods in Charleston.
The remaining 600-plus houses will go on 335 acres to the east and south of the original development.
Norton expects the first homes to be built in early 2022, after roads and utilities are in place. The entire project will be built in eight phases over about 10 years, he said. A development agreement approved last year, however, allows 20 years if needed.
Home prices will most likely be from the high $200,000s to the $400,000s, based on current rates and demand in the Charleston region.
To help finance the initial parcel to be developed along Ashley River Road, in August Ashton Woods sold 154 of the 489 acres it originally purchased to an affiliate of New York-based equity firm Brookfield Properties for $7.66 million.
Norton said the homebuilder will buy the property back plus pay for any development costs once construction is completed.
The homebuilder bought the site in January from an arm of Johnson Development Associates of Spartanburg, which purchased nearly 4,000 acres in 2018 for $14.3 million.
Under a development agreement with the city in 2019, only 1,004 housing units can be developed on the entire 4,000-acre tract. With Ashton Woods building 950, the remaining 54 units can be built on 3,320 acres set aside for forestry, solar farms, sand mines, utilities and trails.
Much of the forestry tract is undevelopable since it is dotted with wetlands.
Three separate parcels, all along Ashley River Road, total 150 acres that can be developed for a mix of uses, including residential, commercial or office space. Three hundred housing units can be built on the commercial parcels, but they would be counted as part of the 1,004 total number allowed on the entire tract.
The development agreement also requires a fire station or the installation of sprinklers in every home built until fire service is provided.
Johnson Development has agreed to donate land for a fire station along with $2 million for construction.
The expansive Watson Hill tract has been embroiled in controversy since North Charleston leaped across the Ashley River in 2005 by annexing five parcels along S.C. Highway 61, including Watson Hill.
Other municipalities as well as community organizations tried to block North Charleston from acquiring the site through lawsuits, but in 2011 it was confirmed the state’s third largest city by population would add a slice of land bigger than the Charleston peninsula.
All of the involved parties, including conservationists, cleared the final hurdle of how dense the development would be with last year’s agreement limiting the number of homes to just over 1,000. About 4,500 were originally proposed.
That paved the way for a homebuilder to step in, and Ashton Woods began laying out plans earlier this year for the tract.
“We are taking steps to insure the surrounding areas will not be adversely impacted,” Norton said.
As part of the development agreement, a 200-foot buffer must be maintained between Ashley River Road and the housing development, so homes will not be visible from the two-lane highway unless they can be seen from one of the two entrances to the neighborhood.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey recalled the long road to get to actual development taking place in Watson Hill.
“It’s taken a long time to get here, but we were just looking for a way for North Charleston to grow,” he said. “We are looking forward to doing a quality development and be respectful for what is already there. It’s good to finally see some activity going in there.”
It’s not the only parcel where Ashton Woods is building homes throughout the Charleston area.
Seven years after arriving in the Lowcountry, Norton estimates the homebuilder has built and closed on 910 houses in 17 developments throughout the Charleston region. It currently has houses for sale in six communities on Johns Island and in Cane Bay, Mount Pleasant, Moncks Corner, West Ashley and Summerville.
Among homebuilders serving Charleston, Ashton Woods ranks No. 4, based on 172 closings during the first six months of this year. The nation’s largest homebuilder, D. R. Horton comes at No. 1 with 416 homes sold during the same time span. Lennar, with 383, and Pulte, at 311, take the No. 2 and 3 spots, respectively.
Norton estimates the company will close on about 300 homes by year’s end.
Ashton Woods ranks No. 18 in the number of home closings in the U.S., based on 2019 figures compiled by online service Builder.
The company, with an office off Clements Ferry Road in Charleston, handled 4,763 closings nationally last year with a gross revenue of $1.78 billion. By contrast, No. 1 D.R. Horton, closed 58,434 properties last year with gross revenue of $17.4 billion.