Charles Wykle has lived in Riceville for most of his life. His parents bought their property, on the now aptly named Wykle Road, around 1945 and built a house there six years later. In 1968, Wykle and his wife, Eleanor, built another home where they raised their three daughters and where Eleanor died in 1999.
“I know the property very well — every rock, nook and cranny all around here,” says Wykle. “It was a delightful place to grow up, for myself and for my daughters.”
Wykle’s property adjoins a plot of land known as the Old Coggins Farm, on Old Coggins Place off Old Farm School Road. Owned by the Coggins family for more than two centuries, the largely untouched, 169 acre tract consists of gentle hills, streams and pastures resting in the shadow of Mount Mitchell. Now, however, it could be facing major change. After two years on the market, the property is under option, and an ambitious development proposal aims to create a substantial residential community in the midst of this rural area.
Like much of the rest of the country, Western North Carolina experienced a real estate boom in the early 2000s that peaked, in the Asheville area, in 2007. But the following year, the bubble burst, and the market declined sharply. Foreclosure rates rose, and many luxury home developments here filed for bankruptcy, leaving behind stalled construction, abandoned houses, environmental damage —and major hassles for people living nearby. Amid signs that the market is recovering, however, some observers say sites like the Old Coggins Farm may soon host a resurgence of residential development, with significant implications for neighboring residents.
On Dec. 2, 2013, the Buncombe County Planning and Development Department notified Wykle and other neighbors that a developer, then called Case Enterprises LLC, had submitted a proposal for the Coggins property. Nine days later, the developer hosted a public meeting at the Riceville Community Center where lead developer David Case addressed residents’ concerns.
There was immediate opposition from some neighbors, who had long hoped to see the property placed in a land trust, says Wykle. But others had expected that the land would be developed and weren’t concerned about the plans — at first.
“When [Case] was talking about his initial development plan, I thought that was great,” Wykle recalls. “He started out saying he was only going to put 106 units in there. Then it became 200, 250. Now it’s 382 units: It’s highly dense.”
The proposal the county Planning Board approved on Dec. 16 would allow Coggins Farm LLC (the developer’s current name) to build 382 units on the property, a mix of condominiums, single-family homes and retail space. The developers say their approach is unlike anything seen in the area before, emphasizing sustainability and responsible land use, and the Planning Board seemed to agree. The proposal passed unanimously, with board member Josh Holmes calling it “everything we’ve been asking for.”
Although the zoning would allow up to 12 units per acre based on the water/sewer capacity, slope and other topographical factors, the proposal calls for an average of fewer than three units per acre. The projected price per residential unit is less than $250,000, which the Planning Department considers accessible to average families.
There are also plans for a community school, greenhouses and housing designed to help seniors age in place. The houses would also be clustered, allowing less acreage per house but more open space and agricultural land.
But nearly all the Riceville residents who packed the conference room on Dec. 16 expressed concern over the decision. They believe the Planning Board overlooked many flaws in the proposal, including increased traffic on their serpentine rural road and more runoff into the flood plain that sits below the western end of the Coggins property, adjacent to Wykle’s land. Already, notes Wykle, it will “flood every time there’s heavy rain,” and he fears that even the minimal construction planned for that area could create a dangerous situation.
Beyond these concerns, some residents say the development represents a fundamental change that would undermine the very reasons they chose to settle in Riceville.
“My family has lived on Old Farm School Road for 60 years,” Laura Cruzer told the Planning Board. “People who live on Old Farm School Road, many of us, if not all of us, live there because it is isolated, because it is rural.”
Copper Coggins, the property’s current owner, declined to be interviewed for this story. At the Planning Board meeting, however, she said: “I do want to apologize to my neighbors for selling the property. It has been in my family for a long time, and I know it’s shocking to them that I would sell it to a developer. I don’t happen to have the same feelings about developers as some of them: My father was a developer. … I actually think he would be very impressed with this.”
Coggins, says Wykle, “has been a good neighbor. She and her family are precious people. She has every right to sell her land.”
But Wykle feels the proposed project just doesn’t fit the area. “There are other developments here, but the houses are single dwellings. Then this comes. I want to see a reasonable residential development — not packed in. This is a little town.”
Since the Planning Board meeting, he has organized additional community meetings, and residents are considering how to communicate their concerns to the county commissioners, who will consider the proposal on Feb. 4.
The plan includes rezoning a section of the property Public Service to allow for commercial development, which the Planning Board also approved. Wykle and other residents say this only increases their concern about the changing face of their neighborhood.
A different model
“We understand there have been a lot of developers that have come from out of state and sort of mucked things up, and we carry — the field of development carries — that baggage,” says Case.
Case started out building affordable housing in Hartford, Conn. But in 1996, he says he “experienced a calling” that led him to Tucson, Ariz., where he worked as lead developer for Civano, a planned community on the outskirts of the city. Case describes the project as “800 acres of green town, built from the ground up” by Civano Development Co. The now defunct Tucson Citizen reported that the project was billed as “the first master-planned sustainable development in the United States.”
“It was, up until [the Old Coggins] project, the most powerful thing I’d ever been involved in, in terms of taking a philosophy and an idealism and making it work,” notes Case. “It’s a tough business, but that’s how I get inspired; that’s what I’ve been looking for.”
The developer says he’s been visiting Asheville for 20 years and chose the Old Coggins site in part because of its proximity to town and to Warren Wilson College. Case and his partners say this project, like Civano, will be different from anything done before: gentle to the land while incorporating principles of “affordability, sustainability and entrepreneurship.”
“The underlying tenet here is ‘What does it take for a rural community to thrive?’” Coggins Farm partner Jan Correa explains. “For us, it’s around a respect for the environment; it’s around intellectual stimulation and not being bored out in the rural areas, but having access to a university and other things we hope to provide on the site — what we’re calling an ‘innovation center’; and it’s the ability to financially sustain yourself and your family in whatever state you are in life.”
Correa, who says her background is in “nonprofit and social enterprise endeavors,” stresses that the community won’t have gates or a golf course but will offer entrepreneurial opportunities, senior housing and intellectual stimulation “to keep you growing and learning no matter where you are.”
Another partner, Andy Baker, has worked in Asheville and the Carolinas before and says he’s well aware of the kinds of problems that can plague developments, having done “the backside of cleaning up these projects that failed.” The Old Coggins Farm project, Baker maintains, won’t have that kind of impact, because the development will be concentrated on 80 of the 169 acres, and fewer than 400 units will be built on a property that could, according to the zoning, accommodate 2,029.
“It’s our belief that folks want to move to rural settings, and there’s a few ways to do that,” notes Baker. “One is to continue the kind of growth that’s already out there, which are these large home sites slowly spreading out from town. With the kind of unit count and number of homes that we plan to do, you’d be looking at between 300 and 400 acres of space being chewed up in these rural settings.
The idea, says Baker, “referring back to a European hamlet, is that you focus the density in one area and you preserve around it. By having this density in one area, in reality, it’s preserving a lot more land than if we were to continue with the development model of one-acre home sites.”
The vision, says Case, calls for “marrying the idea of living close to agriculture, raising some of your own food, being connected to Warren Wilson and the 25 miles of trails — always on the discipline that the price tag in the end has to be affordable to most people in Asheville.”
Opponents, however, say they’re skeptical about both the developers’ commitment to the promised environmental protections and their financial solvency, citing Case’s history with Civano.
According to the Tucson Citizen, that development was conceived as a solar community, and at least one Tucson City Council member criticized Civano for failing to deliver on the innovations it promised. There were also financial troubles — RGC Tucson, one of the builders hired to erect housing units on the site, defaulted. Case exited the project in 1999, selling his shares to the Federal National Mortgage Association. His partner, Civano Co. President Kevin Kelly, sold the remainder of the shares to Fannie Mae in 2000.
But Arizona Daily Star reporter Tom Beal, who covered the project 15 years ago, says Civano, subsequently completed by another firm hired by Fannie Mae, is doing well now. “It’s a lovely community today, but they did have some rough spots in the beginning,” says Beal.
The Coggins Farm partners, however, say they know what they’re getting into and will be developing the property in stages, rather than spending a large sum up front to create infrastructure on the entire site.
“A lot of these projects that failed, they ran into surprises,” notes Baker. “There’s unexpected significant expenditures, and a lot of the time that’s related to infrastructure and things they just hadn’t anticipated in developing mountains. With this project it’s a very gentle grade, and we’re only developing 80 acres — not 1,100 acres, like The Cliffs. With the phased development, we’re talking about 10 or 15 acres at a time, so it’s very minimal.”
As for funding, Case says he and his partners are in “active discussions” with lenders who will respect their vision. “This is going to take a lot of money,” he concedes. “We’re going to the kind of money that isn’t interested in absolutely maximizing every square inch of the property.”
“Raising money is hard; it’s always been hard,” continues Case. “And in the end, we’ve always managed to do it.”
Sustainability vs. luxury
Meanwhile, the local real estate market seems to be reviving after the 2007 collapse, and some land-use experts say the Coggins Farm project may be part of a larger shift away from the gated luxury communities of the recent past.
“We’ve noticed a sharp uptick in the last six months of this year, with development coming back,” notes county Zoning Administrator Josh O’Conner. “But it’s coming back different than it was before the bubble burst.”
O’Conner says the Planning Department is seeing less estate-style development than it did in 2007 and ’08 and more focus on younger homebuyers rather than retirees, more primary rather than second or third homes.
While “sustainability” has become a buzzword among developers, so far no one has done anything locally on the scale of what the Coggins Farm project promises, says Julie Mayfield, co-director of the Western North Carolina Alliance. “Asheville already has a lot of the gated communities, the big-houses-on-a-mountain developments, and we also have a lot of infill development. What we don’t have a lot of is brand-new communities being built with an eye towards community and sustainability.”
Mayfield, whose organization tracks land-use and environmental issues in the region, says it’s possible to incorporate sustainability into design through things like cluster development and having homes face common areas to encourage interaction among neighbors. Some smaller local developments, she notes, have already done this.
“We don’t have anything like that that’s been done on a bigger scale, with the exception of parts of Biltmore Park. My hope is this development will be that example of how you can create a new development out in the country that is something other than the one house per half-acre or acre model, which is what we tend to have.”
Mayfield also feels it’s possible for developments to preserve a community’s rural feel. For example, by surrounding the construction with green space, so neighbors and people driving by aren’t forced to interact with the development unless they choose to enter it.
“This region is growing, and we have to figure out a way to accommodate the people who are coming here in a way that is consistent with our environmental values, and which steps lightly on the land,” Mayfield asserts. “Theoretically the kinds of things [the Coggins Farm] development is talking about doing are heading in the right direction. And theoretically that can all get obliterated if the development is so big that it has to sacrifice some of its plans or has such a density that it overwhelms the local roads.”
Mike Figura, who owns Mosaic Community Lifestyle Realty, says he’s been monitoring real estate trends in Asheville and Buncombe County for more than 10 years, and he’s skeptical that the Coggins Farm model represents the new standard.
Figura says the median home sale price in the county leveled off after the crash and hasn’t changed much since, due in part to below-market sales of homes in struggling luxury subdivisions. Meanwhile, city prices have almost returned to the 2007 level, he notes, reflecting a heightened interest in urban real estate.
“The trends we’re seeing across the country we’re also seeing in Asheville,” says Figura. “Cities are outperforming rural areas. Most people want to live in the city.”
Due to the limited availability of suitable parcels, large-scale projects within the city limits are forced to go vertical, Figura explains. That leaves single-family-home subdivisions looking toward the county, and he’s not convinced that the next generation of those projects will be all that different from the large-acreage gated communities of the previous decade.
“We’re seeing a lot of luxury developments in Florida raising back up, and we’re usually a couple years behind Florida,” he points out, citing the recent acquisition of The Cliffs communities by the Jacksonville, Fla.-based Arendale Holdings as perhaps signaling a resurgence in the luxury-housing market.
“I don’t think it’s going to come roaring back, but I don’t think that market is dead,” Figura maintains. “I think there’s been a change in mindset but not a fundamental change. People have short memories.”
Ron Ainspan, Coggins’ partner, says he hopes the community will find a way to work with the developers and “not worry about the worst but look for the best of many possible outcomes.” He says he’s talking with Case about ways to reduce the number of housing units, preserve more green space and use the site to foster local agricultural projects, though these ideas will depend on economic factors.
“There is an opportunity for really heartfelt conversations,” says Ainspan, adding that he’ll be available to his neighbors if they have questions or concerns.
The Buncombe County Commissioners are slated to consider the Coggins Farm proposal Feb. 4, and in the meantime, Case says his company will continue to hold town meetings as part of its pledge to deal openly with the community.
Meanwhile Wykle says he and his neighbors will petition the commissioners to postpone a decision to give the residents more time to get organized. “I want everyone’s perspective to be heard,” he explains. “I’d like to see the commissioners decide this on the facts.”