- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2006

The three counties that comprise Southern Maryland — Calvert, Charles and St. Mary’s — are not immune to the real estate sales and leasing malaise in other parts of the Washington region.

But the area’s rural appeal — as well as its proximity to rivers and bay — continues to attract transplants from Washington and elsewhere.

Delineated by the Patuxent, Potomac and Wicomico rivers, plus the Chesapeake Bay to the east, the peninsula of Southern Maryland offers a watery reprieve from the pace of urban life.

The good news is that as prices level off or drop, some buyers may find the charms of the region more within reach. After all, the market’s dramatic rise in recent years prevented some would-be “first-time buyers from buying homes,” says Lesley Robinson, a Realtor in the RE/MAX 100 office in Dunkirk.

“I would say there is a general slowdown” in Calvert County real estate, Ms. Robinson says. “This is a correction in the market; it could not keep going the way it was.”

Terry Roth, a real estate agent with Durkin Realty in St. Mary’s County, says that while there were about 130 houses on the market countywide a year ago, that number now stands at well over 800. That’s not including homes still on track to be built and sold by such national builders as Ryland Homes, which is planning 95 town homes and 133 single-family homes in Lexington Park.

The glut is even more noticeable in Charles County, where Mr. Roth estimates that more than 1,500 homes are on the market.

Southern Maryland’s commercial real estate scene is another animal altogether, says Harry Shasho, sales manager and associate broker in Baldus Real Estate’s commercial division in La Plata.

“We’re seeing a lot of expansion with our current tenants,” he says.

Baldus has a new client as well: a Johns Hopkins University family medical facility that is in the works and which Mr. Shasho characterizes as the research university’s first foray into this portion of the state.

The region “is a target area for a lot of businesses,” adds Mr. Shasho, an agent for 21 years, 18 of them with Baldus. “People have finally figured out where we are and that we are not that far from D.C.,” he says.

He ticks off Indian Head Naval Surface Weapons Center in Charles County, Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Calvert County, and “all those government contractors” in Lexington Park — part of St. Mary’s County — among the key employers driving the local economy.

To the west, Marcia Keeth, chief of community development services in Charles County, reports a similar surge in commercial real estate growth.

“We have several office parks in various development states,” she says. “That’s part of our goal: to create the infrastructure for business growth” and bring more jobs with higher-than-average wages — and preferably more residents, too — to the county.

“Right now, 60 percent of our work force is commuting to D.C. proper or the adjacent suburbs,” Ms. Keeth says. “Our goal is to reduce that — to create a reverse commute where people who live here can work here, too.”

In face of a rising inventory of homes in the three counties, developers are pushing hard to reach new buyers.

Brooke Kaine, a second-generation builder and the CEO of 55-year-old Kaine Homes, says that the company is putting a “renewed emphasis on the sales and marketing side of our business.”

“There is still a buyer out there,” says Mr. Kaine, whose communities include Covenant Creek, which contains some 30 homes currently, with one under construction, and is expected to top out at 51 homes.

“We are experiencing good sales. I know that’s not the norm right now, but we are still profitable,” Mr. Kaine says.

Mr. Kaine says that the Covenant Creek project marks the first time “a residential single-family subdivision has done community-wide landscaping. We spent close to $400,000 on landscape design and planting, including hiring a professional landscape architect.”

From 1990 to 2003, Calvert County was the fastest-growing county in the entire state, which unnerved planning officials. Kaine Homes and other builders working in the region have had to comply with the county’s 1997 goal of limiting buildout to 37,000 households.

When that target was first set, “we were around 24,000 households” strong, says Gregory Bowen, director of the Department of Planning and Zoning, based in Prince Frederick. “Throughout the ‘90s, we were building almost a new school a year, and for a county of our size, that was a tremendous financial burden.”

“Now some of our schools are getting older, and we are in the process of replacing them,” Mr. Bowen says. “By virtue of the fact that we have slowed residential growth dramatically, it gives us a chance to look at other public needs,” such as fire stations and libraries.

The county is “getting a handle” on its growth, Mr. Bowen says, noting that relations with developers have remained positive. “We have a number of quality builders in the county that are looking to build a nice product,” he says.

While the cap on the number of households has sometimes meant “that they have had to look elsewhere” for new areas to develop, “we also realize that housing as a whole is a cyclical thing.”

Ms. Robinson, the RE/MAX agent, had attributed some of the recent residential sales slowdown to pre-election uncertainty. Now that the elections are over, she predicts that some buyers will come off the sidelines, spurred on in part by incentives some builders are throwing in to sweeten the deal.

“Sellers are offering closing help in the form of dollars, as well as bells and whistles such as soaking tubs,” says Ms. Robinson, who moved to the area in 1973, she says, to have “more space and better air.”

“Any community here would be good for raising children,” she says, adding that she works primarily with retirees and first-time buyers. With an approximate price range of $300,000 to $600,000, homes here offer “something for everybody.”

“And you can get into Washington in under an hour,” she adds.

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