RIO VISTA — It could be a scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, “The Birds.”
The only noise in the windy, desolate area off Liberty Island Road is the cooing of hundreds of pigeons that have taken up residence on the earthen-tone, abandoned model homes that were supposed to be part of the upscale Liberty subdivision just outside Rio Vista.
A snapping twig sent the hundreds of birds up and into a circular pattern, only to land on another abandoned, boarded-up model home across the street – there are 13 in all – in the defunct subdivision that is the poster child of what went wrong during the Great Recession.
Nothing much has changed since late 2007 – save for missing copper wiring that thieves stripped from the lights, damaged street signs and various other vandalism issues that have effected the area over the years.
“That area is sort of isolated out there,” said Cecil Dillon, the city’s engineer. “It got hit pretty hard. Those homes are pretty much shells.”
The area of 663 residential lots was supposed to be an ambitious, upscale haven featuring four neighborhoods – Lavender, Hyacinth, Hearth and Home, and Front Porch – of homes that ranged in size from 1,872 square feet to 3,876 square feet. Some lot sizes were 7,000 square feet. The larger homes came complete with extra quarters designed for in-laws or a potential renter.
The project began around 2005 with the city’s approval of a tentative map that allowed for the subdividing of the property locally known as Gibbs Ranch. The final maps were approved in 2006 and in March 2007, Shea Homes Limited Partnership received building permits for model construction.
“The 2006-07 era was just a different timeframe,” said Don Hofer, vice president of community development for Shea Homes. “At that time, (housing) prices in the Bay Area – and other areas of Solano County like Fairfield and into Stockton – had gone up aggressively. The marketing approach for the community was that (you) could (have) a nice large home in Rio Vista for a good value.”
But then the housing market began to soften and by late 2007, the project was put on hold. Hofer said that most people think the problems began in 2008, but he said the issues were seen in the outlying areas first, which is what happened in Rio Vista.
“We were pretty sure if we continued to move forward we would have problems selling those homes,” he said.
When Shea Homes pulled the plug on the project, it left behind a virtual ghost town, complete with improvements such as sewer, water, roads, curbs, gutters and sidewalks, and street lamps. An ornate roundabout at the subdivision entryway sits alone and utility wires still jut from each lot. Commonplace signs such as stop signs and bike lane indicators manage to take on an eerie look in this out-of-the-way eastern corner of Solano County.
Monetarily, there was a lot lost when the project went dormant.
Hofer declined to tell how much money was put into the project but said it was a “considerable amount.” A range of figures from city officials go from about $15 million to $24 million.
“Shea took a huge hit for this project,” Hofer said. “It was painful.”
Painful not only from a business standpoint. Hofer said that workers involved in the project lost their jobs. He called it a difficult situation.
“A lot of people’s lives were impacted,” he said.
The city of Rio Vista also took a hit, but came out a bit ahead due to timing.
Former City Manager Hector De La Rosa, who took his post as the model homes were finishing up, said the city was counting on the development to generate various fees, such as permits and development impact fees. The city also lost on the snowball effect of increased development, such as an upward swing in sales tax revenues.
Would-be property tax increases took a hit as development not only from Liberty but from other planned areas, such as additional homes in Trilogy, ground to a halt.
But with Liberty, the city had not yet accepted, or signed off on, most of the developer’s improvements, which needed to be OK’d by the city before it took control from the developer. The result is that most of the area’s maintenance is currently still the burden of Shea Homes.
No one knows the shape of the underground pipes and today the grass is growing in joints between the concrete. The area has expansive soil, said Dillon, the city engineer, that allows for the expansion and constriction of the land. As the cracks in the road grow, the damage increases, leaving the roads not in the same ready-to-go shape they were in 2008.
“If the city had accepted, it would have been the city’s liability,” Dillon said. “Now, unfortunately, repairs need to be done before acceptance (by the city).”
Shea Homes initially looked at selling the project. Public Works Director Dave Melilli said Hofer brought in some Lewis Homes representatives last year to discuss the possible purchase of the project. Melilli said developers who have approached the city lost interest upon learning the city had not yet signed off on the improvements – leaving whoever bought the project responsible for damages from the past seven or so years – and the possibility of the initial work not meeting city specifications.
“Anyone buying those lots and sites has to finish bringing it up to snuff,” Melilli said. “The whole thing is problematic . . . for someone who wants to walk out there and buy it. They kind of have a little freak-out moment with me (when they find it’s not accepted yet).”
Hofer said Shea Homes is not actively looking to sell the project. He declined to name the dollar figure set for sale but said, “we couldn’t sell it for what we wanted to get out of it.”
As the economy picked up, Shea Homes began to swing hammers again in Trilogy, but there is no timeline for taking up the Liberty project again. The focus has turned, however, to a reposition of the project, such as smaller homes but using the same lots. Hofer and city officials both agreed that there isn’t a market for the larger homes anymore.
“Whatever the mindset was six or seven years ago, certainly isn’t now,” Dillon said. He said the focus is on the affordable instead of the large homes that take up most of the lot.
“Certainly that’s not the market, at least not in Rio Vista,” he said.
In the meantime, city police and occasionally the county sheriff’s deputy patrol the area with the aid of a mobile surveillance system set up by Shea Homes after the models were built. Hofer said the unit seems to have deterred the petty thief and vandal. He said the project has fared pretty well against vandals because of its remote location and because it’s not widely known that the project is even there.
“It’s pretty lonely out there,” De La Rosa said.
Except for the birds.
Reach Susan Winlow at 427-6955 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/swinlowdr.