- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2006

With its natural beauty, abundant historic sites and buildings and a growing number of cultural attractions, West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle has become an appealing destination in recent years for people seeking a respite from city life.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, “we had a number of people who are trying to move out of the Washington area, particularly if they have families,” says Gregory Didden, a broker with Greg Didden Associates in Shepherdstown.

“That’s waning now,” he says, but he says he still has customers looking to buy a second home for vacation use or a larger home than the one they started in a decade ago.

Yet Jefferson County — where the lion’s share of Mr. Didden’s sales takes place — and the other Eastern Panhandle counties of Berkeley and Morgan are not so far away as to be immune to the softening real estate market rippling across greater Washington.

Real estate professionals say the number of active listings has doubled or even tripled from a year ago. What’s more, a home priced at $321,000 in the first quarter of this year is now down to $299,500, on average, according to data from the Eastern Panhandle Board of Realtors.

As in other parts of the region and country, new construction and slower resales have dramatically increased the number of homes on the market. Development has slowed in recent months, but some say its effects on local infrastructure have been damaging.

Bob Butler is no longer on the Berkeley County Planning Commission, but his 30 years as a commissioner gave him a front-row seat for the region’s growth pains. As national developers purchased farmland and dotted it with new homes, “the schools got a workout and so did the police department,” as new citizens strained services that had sufficed for years for smaller populations, says Mr. Butler, who farms and sells real estate.

Now, some of those same “developers are doing their homework and making pricing adjustments,” says Vicki Clark, a Realtor with RE/MAX Enterprises LLC, which has several offices in the region.

Some developers also are adjusting downward the number of new homes slated for completion, Ms. Clark says. Although not all developers report the number of properties they are building, she says the first quarter saw 512 completions, but only 204 in the second.

Nevertheless, demand is high for specialized listings — such as a historic cottage in town that several buyers “fought over because it was unique,” says Jackie Lewis, who opened Greentree Realty of Shepherdstown in 1990 and has been in the business of buying and selling homes for almost 30 years.

She also counts a list of dozens of people expressing interest in a development called Hartzell Gardens, an active adult community that limits residents to households with a member age 55 or older.

“Shepherdstown has never had anything like [Hartzell Gardens] before,” Ms. Lewis says. The projects’ luxury villas are priced in the mid-$400,000 range, and residents may be able to take occupancy of the Hartzell Gardens villas early in 2007.

Some developers say they are actually raising prices.

Alexis Seck, a real estate agent selling Shepherdstown’s Colonial Hills development, says that Atlanta-based Beazer Homes Corp. has raised the prices of its condos, villas, and single-family homes. Currently, the project’s condominium town homes start at $239,900; villas — featuring courtyards and loft options — start around $300,000; and the single-family homes, four of which are under construction now for October or November completion, are priced in the mid-$300,000s.

The buying taking place now is fueled in part by builders’ incentives ranging from free gas cards to funds for day care to finished basements at no additional cost to buyers, Ms. Clark says. She says that 391 homes were sold in the region in the second quarter of 2006, as compared with 330 in the first. “We definitely have qualified buyers, if you talk to any of our lenders,” she says.

Planning officials say they were glad to see the Panhandle’s real estate market calming.

“The froth in real estate that came from the boom has now been reduced to more realistic numbers,” says Howard Strauss, president of the Berkeley County Commission, whose offices are in Martinsburg. He termed the soaring growth of recent years “a double-edged sword.”

County infrastructure struggled under the strain of so many new residents, Mr. Strauss says. Sewer, fire, ambulance and other services had to be shored up, he says, as the population soared from 76,000 in Berkeley County in 2000 to 94,000 in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“A few years ago, we consolidated our water districts” from three to one, Mr. Strauss says. Berkeley County now has the largest water district in the state, he said.

The relative slowdown in the influx of newcomers means the county can better “catch up on providing more services,” Mr. Strauss says.

Yet all those new arrivals did help bolster the local tax base, helping to make possible projects such as the Berkeley County Judicial Center, a 126,000-square-foot building set to open in October in Martinsburg. The county also recently completed a wireless 911 communications system, in part supported by additional tax revenues, Mr. Strauss says.

Seasoned agents say that some of their colleagues are struggling to adjust to a smaller number of closings “after the last four years of not having any downtime,” says Ms. Clark.

“Agents are saying, ‘Gee, I may not have ten closings this month,’” she says. “They might have two or three instead. And there are Realtors who have not had one closing yet this year.”

Yet growth continues. The Coast Guard’s National Vessel Movement Center moved to Kearneysville last year from its hurricane-ravaged location on the Gulf Coast. The government moved up the site’s relocation to West Virginia by five years, creating a bit of a windfall for agents eager for more buyers with whom to work.

Longtime residents say it’s easier now to find others in the region who want the natural beauty of a more rural area, although not at the expense of careers or social connections.

Ellen Hoffman, a journalist who also leads wine and cultural tours to Argentina, was so taken with the quaint charm of Shepherdstown, in Jefferson County, that she and her husband moved there in 1992. Soon after arriving, she and several other women founded a professional women’s networking group to support newcomers and their fledgling business endeavors and/or social ties.

“If you look at our membership list, you see this incredible range of people,” Ms. Hoffman says. “Lawyers, scrapbookers, people working for nonprofits, Realtors. Our members are from all around the Eastern Panhandle; some even come [to meetings] from Maryland and Virginia.” The group, called the Professional Business Women’s Association (www.pbwa.org), is now holding steady at about 100 members, she says.

Jefferson County is also home to Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, a big draw for visitors to the area.

But for Mr. Butler, the former Berkeley County commissioner, the area is far more than a weekend destination or a refuge from the busier Washington area. He has spent all his life here — minus the four years he served in the military during the Korean War.

“I’ve seen a lot of the world, but I haven’t seen anything better,” he says.

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