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Wednesday, 29 July 2009 19:08

Townhomes one of few additions to Sylva housing in a decade

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When Art Pohl moved to Jackson County from Florida 10 years ago, he imagined a golden retirement filled with lazy days of playing golf. But after a few years of living the dream life, his wife wondered just how much golf one man could play.

“I was up here playing golf and enjoying myself and my wife said, ‘You are too young to do nothing. Why don’t you do something?’” recalled Pohl, 61.

Pohl, a residential developer and contractor by trade, had certainly come to the right place to dabble in his former profession. As he contemplated a return to the industry, he studied the housing market in Jackson County and saw plenty of gated mountain subdivisions catering to second-home owners and retirees.

What the county lacked, however, was housing geared toward the professional class who want to live close to the amenities of town. Sylva has seen almost zero growth in its housing stock over the past decade, with development instead focused on the surrounding countryside and mountaintops.

When shopping for land, Pohl stumbled onto the perfect setting for a town home development: a 19-acre tract tucked into a hillside close to downtown Sylva and off Savannah Drive. He created a master plan to build 32 townhomes on the tract. Three years later, the first four units of Laurel Ridge Town Homes have been finished and will hit the market this month.

“I’ve done something here that I hope will spark the town into thinking we need more housing to attract professional people to Sylva,” Pohl said. “I am trying to hit a market of people who don’t want to maintain yards, who want granite countertops and nice hardwood floors. They want a step up at an affordable price.”

At $299,000, the townhomes don’t exactly qualify as affordable housing. But they are at least more affordable than much of what’s on the market.

“They can enjoy this,” Pohl said as he spread his arms, “for what you would pay in the upscale developments for just a lot.”

Although the development is a 15-minute walk from downtown, it has the feel of a private mountain retreat. The townhomes overlook a forested hillside with long-range views peaking through the summer tree canopy. Pohl has set aside 11 acres of the 19-acre tract to be permanently protected.

“The open space gives you the big yard, gives you the view, gives you everything you might want with a five-acre lot but with none of the maintenance and none of the cost. All this is free,” Pohl said, gesturing to the protected forested hillside off a back deck.

Pohl is among the growing number of developers capitalizing on the concept of “cluster development.” Rather than slicing and dicing a tract of land into evenly distributed lots, the new paradigm calls for denser housing concentrated in one area with the rest left relatively undisturbed.

The property was originally zoned for one-acre lots. Pohl faced an uphill battle to get town approval of the denser town home development. Given the steep terrain, carving out one-acre lots across the tract would have required a major cut-and-fill operation and a series of retaining walls and new roads.

“It would have decimated the hillside and the lots would have been so expensive,” Pohl said.

The town ultimately viewed a cluster townhome development as the better option and approved his plan, albeit by a split vote of the town board.

“I took a hell of a gamble that I could go to the town and convince them that they needed it,” Pohl said. “I had some sleepless nights.”

During the year-long process, Pohl found an important ally in former town planner Jim Aust, a major advocate for increasing Sylva’s housing stock and for the cluster development concept.

When Pohl embarked on his development plan, the building boom was in full swing. But three years later, as his first four townhomes hit the market, times are different indeed.

“If the economy would have been where it was three years ago, they would be gone by now,” Pohl said.

Nonetheless, between professors at Western Carolina University and Southwestern Community College — not to mention the standard professional fare of doctors, lawyers, and bankers — Pohl sees plenty of demand for the moderately priced yet posh townhomes. Pohl also sees the townhomes appealing to retirees who don’t want to live in a gated subdivision but rather an in-town neighborhood.

Pohl doesn’t plan on starting to build the next units until the current ones are sold, which he thinks will be snatched up in a few months. Despite his wranglings with the town and the economic downturn, Pohl doesn’t regret coming out of retirement.

“I have absolutely loved this and can’t wait to start the second building. It has given me direction and given me a purpose in life again,” Pohl said. “I love building.”

An open house at the Laurel Ridge Town Homes will be held from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 18. laurelridgetownhomes.com or 828.506.6641.

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