From Interstate 95 in North Laurel, the first road you take toward Wincopia Farms rides a dividing line: suburban subdivisions on the left, farmland to the right rolling to the banks of the Middle Patuxent River.
A big portion of that open land on the right, once owned by the same farming family for generations, is expected to soon raise a crop of 220 single-family homes.
Beazer Homes USA bought the nearly 128-acre Wincopia property off Gorman Road last month with the intention to start building next spring and welcome the first residents that fall if its plans clear the last two hurdles for county approval.
"I don't anticipate any problems," said Ed Gold, president of Beazer's Maryland-Delaware division, adding that the company hopes to have all approvals by the fall or early winter.
Kimberley Flowers, deputy director of the county Department of Planning and Zoning, said three key steps remain: final plan and site plan — which include details about utilities and precise locations of roads — and building permits.
She said the pace of construction would depend on the market and would not be limited by the county's rules that can stop home-building if it is found that public facilities such as schools and roads cannot handle the growth.
When Beazer emerged in June with the property from a field of 19 contenders, it was the latest turn in a years-long ordeal. The Hearn family, which had worked the land for more than a century, fell into a quagmire of debt about 10 years ago, fought to keep the property and ultimately lost it in foreclosure to a finance company, which sold it to Beazer.
The Virginia-based lending company Gourley & Gourley LLC bought the land at a foreclosure auction in 2008 for $12.5 million. Gold said Beazer paid $41 million, gaining its largest stake yet in Howard County, where it has built several smaller projects, including the Gatherings at Jefferson Place in Columbia and the Gatherings at Ellicott Mills in Ellicott City.
At Wincopia Farms, he said, prices would start at about $500,000 for townhouses and $700,000 and $800,000 for detached, single-family homes.
Gold said Beazer believes the land is worth the price for reasons that echo the real estate mantra: location, location, location. That is, the appeal of the rolling, wooded riverfront property itself and the fact that it's in Howard County, a desirable location close to Washington and Baltimore.
"If you take the map out and you see where this is, you say, 'Oh, my God,' " said Gold, who said he first tried to buy the land from Ruth Hearn's family when he worked for Ryland Homes about 10 years ago. "It's 15 minutes from the Greenbelt subway, there's a phenomenal school system. ... Then I look at the land itself."
Opponents of the project who spoke at a public hearing a year ago were also enthusiastic about the bucolic beauty of Wincopia Farms, and they wanted to see it stay that way. The Planning Board's record of that June hearing says three people spoke against the project. They decried the loss of the rural character of Gorman Road, which is designated as a "scenic road." They shared their concerns about overcrowded schools, increased traffic and the possible contamination of the Middle Patuxent by runoff from the development.
County Councilwoman Jennifer Terrasa, who represents that area, said she continues to hear residents express anxieties about the project, adding, "I continue to have the same concerns and will continue to monitor the project as it moves forward through the approval process."
The Planning Board a year ago approved the preliminary plan offered by Gourley and Gourley, saying it met or exceeded the requirements of a project in an area zoned for "residential environmental development." That zoning category sets standards that are meant to curb a project's impact on environmentally sensitive areas.
In this case, the zoning requires that nearly 64 acres be set aside as open space; the development plan calls for nearly 68 acres to be set aside. The zoning code calls for just over an acre and a half for recreation open space, and the proposal includes nearly seven acres.
Of the nearly 72 acres of forest on the land, 39 will remain, which the planning staff report said meets forest conservation requirements. The construction will affect 75 acres, or nearly 60 percent of the site.