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Franklin Co. sees spurt in housing market in 2006

February 18, 2007|by DON AINES

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on the housing market in Franklin County, Pa.

CHAMBERSBURG, PA. - After taking a slight breather in 2005, housing construction caught a second wind in 2006, with more than 1,200 housing starts during the year, according to the Franklin County Planning Department.

At the same time, the number of approved subdivision lots fell sharply. But Franklin County Area Development Corp. President L. Michael Ross said he doesn't think that is an indication the building boom is over.

"The market is going to continue to be strong for the foreseeable future," but less so than during the period from 2004-06, Ross said. The new-housing market "was essentially in a white-hot condition at that point."

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Moratoriums and impact fees in Maryland "accelerated the growth here in Franklin County and the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia sooner and more aggressively than (developers) originally planned," he said.

The availability of land and the proximity to Interstate 81 make the county attractive to builders and buyers, Ross said.

Realtor William McLaughlin agreed that restrictions on new home construction and impact fees in neighboring Maryland counties were a factor in the housing boom, but said he did not believe they were the main reasons.

"Mainly it was the availability of raw land and a substantial difference in the cost of the finished product" in Franklin County compared to housing in the Baltimore-Washington area, he said.

By the numbers

· Housing starts - There were 1,199 housing starts in 2004, but the number fell to 1,092 in 2005. Last year, the number of housing starts rebounded to 1,241 with an estimated value of $211.7 million, according to the annual Planning Department report.

· Even though the number of houses being built increased by 149 between 2005 and last year, the estimated value was almost the same as in 2005 - $211.4 million.

· While housing starts increased in 2006, the number of subdivision lots approved by municipalities fell by more than 1,000 to 5,403. There were 976 residential subdivision units approved in 2000, with the number climbing to 3,039 in 2004 before doubling to 6,487 in 2005, according to county figures.

Where it's at

The pattern of growth last year was similar to that of 2005, with most of the new housing concentrated in a handful of municipalities.

Greene Township topped the list in 2006 with new residential construction at 190 units worth $47,878,418. In 2005, Greene Township had 119 housing starts, according to county figures.

Next was Washington Township, with 184 homes valued at $44,866,109. Washington Township reported 160 housing starts the previous year.

The statistics showed a slowdown in Antrim Township with 125 housing starts worth $22.3 million in 2006, down from 151 with an estimated value of $28 million in 2005.

Housing starts also were down in Guilford and Hamilton townships from 2005.

The boroughs of Waynesboro and Chambersburg both saw considerable increases in housing starts last year, according to the Planning Department. Waynesboro went from 31 starts in 2005 to 112 worth more than $15 million, while Chambersburg saw its starts increase from 29 to 113 valued at more than $16 million in 2006.

Subdivision growth

Franklin County Planning Director Phil Tarquino said the entry of large home building companies into the area has contributed to the explosion of subdivision plans. Instead of submitting subdivision plans in phases, some developers are seeking approvals for hundreds of lots at a time, he said.

Washington Township, especially, continues to have large residential developments submitted for approval along Washington Township Boulevard.

The board of supervisors in December approved 87 lots of the 221-unit Antietam Commons, and are considering final approval of 184 lots in Farm Spring Estates. Another 230-home development is being proposed for the boulevard's intersection with Pa. 997.

In the past, developers bought a parcel of land and developed it in sections over a period of years, submitting subdivision plans for 20 or 40 lots at a time, Tarquino said. The people buying the lots often would hire their own contractors to build the house.

"With the big guys, you can't buy a lot and hire a contractor ... You buy the package with them," Tarquino said.

"People still want new houses," said Pam Anderson, of Anderson Construction, who has been in the business of building homes for 16 years.

Existing housing stock, which typically sells from $150,000 to $200,000, generally appeals to county natives and first-time homebuyers, said Eric Gossard, vice president of the Pen-Mar Regional Association of Realtors Inc.

Anderson, who owns her own construction company, said people used to buy a lot and then hire a contractor to build on that land. Now, big housing firms "are buying large chunks of land and building their own developments," she said.

While county planning records show nearly 15,000 residential lots approved in the past three years, the number of houses built during the same period is one-tenth of that figure.

"I wouldn't look for all those lots to build out anytime soon," Senior Planner Sherri Clayton said. "Some of our developments have taken 10 or 20 years to build out and some have never come to fruition."

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