A Main Street law office without windows is an odd place for a such a good view.
But Waynesville attorney Frank Queen has had a front-row seat to the mountains from here, witnessing thousands of acres trade hands — land with scenic vistas, along creeks, in forests, behind gates, on farms, hugging cliffs and tucked in coves — during the real estate boom of the 2000s.
Randy Best was a rare bird in the development heyday of the 2000s. Where others just saw dollar signs, Best actually saw land.
“I would spend a month walking a piece of property after we bought it. I walked every inch and when I was done, I knew where every house site was going to be, where every septic was going to be, how the roads would lay,” said Best, a Haywood County native.
In a region still reeling from damaged land and dented lives in the wake of the real estate boom and bust, signs of salvation are few and far between. But here’s one for the history books.
Twice in the past year, Haywood County has used a little-known clause of financial legalese to hold developers’ feet to the fire after they walked away mid-stream. It’s a minuscule but unprecedented victory in a rocky world of marred up mountains and abandoned developments.
When inflated real estate values in the second-home market came back down to earth, the touchdown wasn’t gentle.
It was more of a crash-landing, and five years later two mountains counties are still sifting through the wreckage.
The story is all too familiar.
A property developer buys a large swath of land with grand plans to build high-end homes and sell them for a substantial profit. But the housing bubble bursts. The lots don’t move. The property sits empty, and eventually, the developer can’t repay the bank loan used to purchase the land. It falls into foreclosure and becomes an artifact of the U.S. real estate market crash.
Real estate prices have taken such a drastic plunge in Macon and Jackson counties — which once boasted the highest concentration of mega-developments catering to the high-end second home market — that county commissioners there keep postponing the countywide property revaluation.
As Macon Bank scurried to get in on the ground floor of the real estate heyday in the mountains, it unwittingly stumbled into a house of cards, and found itself caught up in a scheme akin to insider trading that artificially inflated high-end lot prices and duped the bank into making risky loans.
The view from Roger Plemens office is hard to beat.
Bay windows serve up a bird’s eye view of the Nantahala mountain range, a vantage point that must have been a factor when Macon Bank chose this hilltop for its prestigious corporate headquarters that tower above Franklin.
Fallout from the real estate bubble in Western North Carolina has landed Macon Bank on the watch list of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, a federal banking oversight arm.
Macon Bank has been operating under the scrutiny of the FDIC since March. The oversight agency has laid out a series of benchmarks the bank must meet, from strict performance targets to heightened involvement by the bank’s board of directors.
By Mark Jamison • Guest Columnist
A fellow once asked me, about a car I was selling, “What’s the least you would take for that car?” I thought for a second and replied, “What’s the most you’d give for it?”
In that exchange was the essence of the market. Buyers want to pay the least they can and sellers want the most they can get and the idea of the market is to find a place where their interests intersect.
In the case of the car we both had information we could go on to determine a fairly narrow range of value for the car. There are published reports of what similar vehicles sell for and there are other bits of information that gave both of us a range in which a realistic price ought to exist. What was left was to consider our individual needs, how much he might want the car versus how badly I needed to sell it.
The parameters of the transaction though were determined by this thing we call a market which is nothing but a confluence of information, need and desire. The market gives the buyer and the seller some assurance that there is a reasonable range of price that can be arrived at by applying the available information to the available supply and demand.
I’ve had several conversations recently with people seeking to buy or sell property here in Jackson County. A question seems to keep coming up, what is anything actually worth? I have a friend who is looking to buy a few acres on which to build a house. He’s found a piece of land that seems suitable and is to his liking. He wants to offer a fair price but because of the failure of the market he has no idea of how to determine what that might be. I happen to know the seller in this transaction, and he too would like to arrive at a fair price but has little means of judging what that might be. Because neither trusts the market, neither is willing to complete the transaction.
There are many factors that have contributed to the failure of the market for land here in Jackson County. Prices had reached speculative levels before the overall crash. Many of our normal pricing mechanisms like government valuations reflect these prices, which are clearly no longer valid. Then too we had a number of development companies that to varying degrees had engaged in a game of catching the rising bubble. They offered plans and schemes that probably never would have succeeded but were at the least based on the fiction of ever-rising prices.
These plans and schemes were specifically designed to be attractive to a class of buyers who felt particularly wealthy due to inflated stock, capital, and property markets. These were people who were living an illusion, their wealth was neither liquid nor solid yet their willingness to spend on things like second homes reflected a confidence that simply was not justified.
While the great property bubble was building there were many here in Jackson County who were concerned about the unfolding events. Thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive land were being slated for development. It seemed that the plans for these developments gave little attention to either environmental consequences or for that matter more prosaic concerns like the ability of local infrastructure to absorb and service the additional development. In addition, the idea of turning Jackson County into a wealthy enclave of gated developments was far from attractive and highly unsettling to people, both natives and those who had relocated here.
Somewhere between the golden goose of high-end gated development on every available parcel and absolute preservation there was likely to be a middle ground. Many of those who supported the development of land use regulations saw those regulations as a means to ensure that development bore the burdens and responsibilities of its impacts as a consequence of reaping profit. Many recognized that some, moderate development offered good solid middle-class jobs in the trades for many long time Jackson County residents. The failure of the boon times was that it overwhelmed the county’s capacity to absorb it. Many of the plans were unrealistic, financed in highly speculative ways and far too nebulous in terms of their care for existing communities and sensitive environments. In addition, many of the developers ignored local economies and local tradesmen in favor of carpetbaggers and firms designed to work quick, cheap and fast as a means of deriving maximum profit to the exclusion of all other considerations.
The crash put an end to all of that. And while many of the speculators, the developers, real estate hucksters, attorneys and financiers who fueled the boom lost heavily, some of those hurt worst were local individuals and communities who were left with high property valuations, higher taxes and a moribund economy.
We’ve moved from a highly inflated market fueled by speculation and untenable assumptions to no market, a sense that no one knows quite what anything should be worth and everyone seems hesitant to engage in even basic economic activity. The uncertainty affects the retirement plans of some, the job prospects of others, and even the fundamental assumptions on which much of the county’s budget is based.
The problem, it would seem, is that there is a great deal of inventory available (although much of it is compromised by various legal entanglements). Some very large areas that had been slated for high-end development are locked into a legal limbo.
Some of the land most impacted is also some of the most environmentally sensitive. Some of it currently has half done, poorly done infrastructure that threatens a tremendous mess. For examples, one only has to look at the reporting on some of the more informed local blogs. And perhaps even worse is that many of the 7,000-plus lots that were essentially exempted from the land-use regulations exist within these developments.
So, we have an essentially non-functioning market in Jackson County, a damaged economy, and a huge inventory of damaged and legally encumbered land.
I wonder, though, if there isn’t a possible solution that might serve everyone’s interests to some degree or another. The overall public interest might best be served if some of the most sensitive land that was slated for development and is now compromised by legal, financial or environmental complications was transferred into the public trust either through conservation easement or transfer into state or federal parks or game lands.
The first argument one might expect to hear about such a proposal is that the county could not afford to lose the prospective tax base. That same argument was made 40 years ago when much of the land that is now Bear Lake Reserve (or was, since some has since been sold) was offered into the public trust. In retrospect, we can see the loss of opportunity and the costs that development has imposed.
The fact is that a sizable reduction in inventory would actually give the market some basic parameters against which to re-establish itself. The future loss of supposed tax base, certainly no sure thing given recent events, would likely be offset by the faster recovery of local property markets and the associated increase in economic activity.
There are those who might argue that at present the terrain looks quite nice thank you. Development has been halted and the assaults on the environment and our communities have ceased. I would reply that at best that is only temporary and that we have all the elements for another bubble in place, although I would concede that it is an event likely not to occur for perhaps 10 years.
Still, there is a tremendous amount of money, both corporate and private equity, sitting on the sidelines at the moment. The hesitancy of that money to move might just as likely be attributed to wiliness as fear. Someone somewhere is waiting to pick up distressed assets at a bargain and the question isn’t if, it may be when. The ensuing consolidation may actually be worse. There is some indication that parts of the trophy market are, if not recovering, at least evolving. One should remember that those in the top 2 percent of income have actually done quite well of late.
We may have an example of a more savvy investor here in Jackson County. J.P. Kennedy, a software developer for the oil services industry, may be one of the largest single landholders in Jackson County. He sold much of what became Bear Lake to Centex and bought back some of that when Centex failed. It also appears he has been involved at various levels with the Legasus properties.
Mr. Kennedy or some entity that is as equally well resourced may be in a position to consolidate thousands of acres for development. Given the current attitudes of those in power at state and local levels it is likely that government might find itself willing to be accommodating to the desires of ostensibly powerful interests. And for all the good the ordinances did, their creation left avenues large enough to drive a very large bulldozer through for those who might be so inclined.
What’s to be done? Well there might just be an opportunity available provided those with power and those with expertise can come together in some fairly creative way. A couple of banks and a private equity company or two own some pretty worthless paper on several thousand acres. There are any number of lot owners who purchased lots in developments that will never exist. There are claims, counterclaims and foreclosures, tax liens and likely any other number of legal hurdles that might make immediate development of any of this land impossible.
If local, state and federal agencies — along with conservation and preservation organizations — were to put their heads together, it occurs to me that between existing tax credits and incentives, easement possibilities, and possibly even mitigation credits, that a reasonable proposal might be created that would allow the banks and private firms holding what amounts to useless paper to clear their balance sheets fairly quickly. Actually, those developers and investors that didn’t go under might like to participate, since the elimination of inventory and the likely restoration of the market that would follow would be in their interests as well.
We live in an unsettled time. Governments at all levels are cutting programs and expenses. Investors are timid and markets are stymied. The times are difficult, but difficult times often uncover unique opportunities.