New Home Builders president wants to simplify rules, train next generation Nailing Down Clark Turner


Clark Turner slides into his truck, a car phone by his side, and heads to inspect the moving of dirt at North Park office park, to check utilities in Country Walk subdivision, to revel in his finished empty-nester townhouses at Glen Gate.

This is Harford County builder Clark Turner moving at fast forward, a dapper figure in a checkered jacket becoming merely a blur.

Even Mr. Turner's competitors agree that such a frenetic pace will serve him well in his new role. On Wednesday, the 40-year-old president of Bel Air-based Clark Turner Cos. became president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland, a 1,400-member trade group with six county chapters, six special-interest councils, a 30-person staff and a $2.5 million operating budget.

Mr. Turner, builders say, is someone with a passion for building homes, a staunch defender of the industry, a proven manager of people, projects and money. They say he's just what the association needs, especially in a day of weakened consumer confidence, strong anti-development sentiment and increasingly stringent building regulations.

"Clark always has a lot of balls in the air," says Bryon Krane, vice president for the Baltimore North division of competing builder Ryland Group Inc. "He's 100 miles an hour all the time and much happier when he's moving."

Mr. Turner became known as a wheeler-dealer back in high school, where he earned the nickname "storefront."

"Everyone knew who he was," recalls a former student at Havre de Grace High. "He always had something going on. He always had little deals."

It would have been some feat not to know him. He was everywhere, even back then, student council president, art club member, participant in Men Only -- a group of students who "combed the school campus and town helping to keep them beautiful," the yearbook says. It was obvious to his peers he would go places. They voted him the Class of 1971's "Most Likely To Succeed."

But precisely what he should do with his life evaded the son of dry-cleaning business owners. He thought of becoming a lawyer and enrolled as a political science major at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, earning money on the side doing yard work.

Then one day, he showed up at the home of his high school girlfriend, Debbie, now his wife, and announced, "I'm going to build houses."

"You're going to do what?" she said.

Homebuilding got into Mr. Turner's blood in 1977 when he built his first house in Aberdeen. With no background in building, he taught himself, using skills he'd learned turning old houses in Havre de Grace into apartments. When he finished the three-bedroom house and thought of someone living in his creation, he was hooked. He sold the home for $39,900 and bought two more lots. Clark Turner Homes was born.

"You see the products of your efforts take shape, going from conceptual and early design stages. It's very rewarding," he says.

The determined young man with a seemingly natural sense of design caught the attention of Melvin Bosely, an early developer of Harford County subdivisions in the 1970s. Frank Hertsch, managing partner at Hertsch, Gessner, Laws & Snee, who represented Mr. Bosely at the time, says his client believed he'd made a shrewd business decision by offering to sell lots in Box Hill North to Mr. Turner.

"Melvin Bosely wasn't the kind of person that took unnecessary risks," Mr. Hertsch says. "Melvin understood Clark had an ability to sell products different from run-of-the-mill. Melvin knew he could sell lots if Clark built a lot of homes. He could see the potential clearly."

After Mr. Turner's first venture into a subdivision, he built more homes. Then he expanded into land and commercial development.

Today Mr. Turner runs Clark Turner Cos. with his wife, who had become a broker and joined the business in 1981, a couple of years before their marriage. They employ 20 design, production and sales workers and build condominiums, townhouses and single-family homes in Harford and Cecil counties. Known for architectural innovation, subdivisions with a sense of place and a willingness to back up its work, the company has found a niche between volume builders and small custom builders. In communities such as Glen Gate, Sable Woods, Roland Place and Country Walk, prices range from $100,000 for a townhouse to more than $700,000 for a brick custom mansion.

When they're not working, the Turners travel, "and look at houses," Mrs. Turner says. Any spare time goes to an old farmhouse the couple is renovating on aChurchville farm.

Arden Holdredge, chief of current planning for Harford County, has steered many Turner projects through county approval during the past nine years.

Homes with 'something extra'

"Clark builds townhouses and single-family homes that have that something extra, decorator-type touches," Ms. Holdredge says, noting that he was the first to build lofts in townhouses and to tailor townhouses for empty-nesters who wanted garages and first-floor master bedrooms.

"With any project you have the occasional dissatisfied person, -- but by and large we've had very few of those in regards to Clark," she says. "Clark's a gentleman. He's not one to call up and scream and yell and try to intimidate."

He has made a name on the commercial side as well. Much of the Bel Air business community goes to work each day in a Clark Turner building, known for brick exteriors and touches such as slate walkways, cedar shake roofs and decorative columns.

"Our commercial clients refer to projects as Clark Turner-style buildings," says Paul E. Peak, president of Forest Hill Bank, which makes construction loans in the area.

A more-demanding public

Since Mr. Turner designed his first home, more than his building style has changed.

When he started, customers demanded less -- air conditioning used to be an option -- new homes rarely met with large-scale opposition from neighbors and builders contended with far fewer restrictions.

Customers today demand more closet space, more luxurious bathrooms, two-car garages and extra rooms for dens or family rooms. And Mr. Turner says county, state and federal building restrictions too often overlap, driving up the cost of building -- and thus the cost of housing -- like nothing else.

This gets under Mr. Turner's skin. Answering questions about himself, he shifts uncomfortably, smiles shyly, answers tersely. But switching to talk of the lot of builders, he becomes impassioned, slicing the air with his hands, bristling at overzealous regulations that require builders to plant more trees, install sprinklers in townhouses and ensure adequate public facilities.

"When people talk about the cost of housing since the 1970s, when you take a look at it, the cost of housing hasn't gone up

that much; the lot cost is the bigger increase," Mr. Turner says. "And the driving cost behind the rise in the cost of a lot is government regulation. We're feeling it all over, the cumulative effect of all the regulation."

For the homebuyer, that means more expensive new homes, "creating a society of the housing haves and the have-nots," Mr. Turner says. "When someone has a home, they start to fight intensely so nothing gets built around them. I don't recall that attitude at all when I started out."

As president of the Home Builders, he intends to prove that duplicative regulations add a "staggering" amount to the price of a new home. He also plans to work for better training for the next generation of builders and promote builders' charitable contributions to communities.

"We tend to be perceived as the evil empire out there," he says. "The perception is we're takers, coming in to rip up the trees and tear up the ground."

But Mr. Turner, who lives in Bel Air, says he has as much of a stake as any other resident. That's one message he hopes to spread on behalf of all builders.

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