A new developer has taken the reins of a huge subdivision planned for more than 600 acres of rolling pastureland that once played host to yearly horse races.
In early October, Wakefield Development Co. submitted a preliminary master plan for Steeplechase, a 2,500-lot residential community on the northeast side of town.
The land, known locally as the Earp property, is tucked between City and Covered Bridge roads; its owners are Nancy Earp and her sister-in-law, Mary Worley.
In the mid-2000s, the Earps worked with a different developer on a similar subdivision plan. But the parties went their separate ways as the housing boom went bust during the recession.
Worley said this week that the family could not talk about the project because of a confidentiality agreement. However, Kem Ard, a land-development specialist with Wakefield Development, said the company has the land under contract.
“It’s a very beautiful piece of property,” Ard said. “We do believe in it and think it will make a great community.”
The master plan, which must win approval from Clayton leaders, shows single-family homes, town homes, apartments and condominiums. It also shows a clubhouse near a large pond and a commercial center at the intersection of Covered Bridge Road and O’Neil Street.
The proposed layout sets aside space for a school.
Second time around
Nearly a decade ago, New Jersey-based Stratland Town and Country Developers targeted the Earp property for a slightly smaller, 2,200-lot community. The development, then called Biltmore, was projected to bring an additional 6,000 residents to Clayton, which would have boosted the town’s population by 50 percent at that time.
The Town Council approved the master plan, rezoned the Earp property and annexed about 650 acres. But the deal fell through in 2007. At the time, an attorney for the family said Town and Country did not specify a reason for backing out.
Dave DeYoung, Clayton’s planning director, said he suspects the struggling housing market led the developer to back out.
“The economy died, and they walked away from it,” DeYoung said.
The previous master plan expired, but the zoning change and annexation remain valid. Town staff will review the new proposal and seek input from the fire department, school leaders and other public agencies.
Because of the sheer size of the proposed development, an increase in traffic is one concern neighboring property owners have expressed with both the previous and current proposals. The town is requiring a traffic study, DeYoung said, adding that the developer is already aware of multiple needed improvements. Those include the widening and realignment of Covered Bridge Road and changes at the intersection of Covered Bridge and City roads, he said.
“Twenty-five hundred units will not magically appear all at one time,” DeYoung added. “This will be phased in over time, and that will obviously be taken into consideration in the traffic study.”
On Monday, neighbors who live near the proposed subdivision filled a room at The Clayton Center to hear from the project’s developers.
Mavis House was part of the standing-room-only crowd. She lives on Covered Bridge Road, where she can count 50 cars pass by her home in a span of seven minutes in the evening.
“I can’t hardly get out of my drive right now,” House said. “I don’t know what it will do to traffic, but they are going to have to have more stoplights.”
But House, whose home also sits across from a future Clayton park, said she knows change is inevitable.
“You can’t stop it,” she said. “You just have to flow with it.”
Wakefield Development Co.’s portfolio includes large, upscale neighborhoods like Wakefield Plantation in Raleigh, a golf course community with homes that range from $140,000 to $4 million. The company also built Bedford at Falls River, another Raleigh neighborhood with nearly 1,600 homes.
Clayton Mayor Jody McLeod said he thinks Wakefield would do a good job of building a quality subdivision while maintaining the character of “one of the prettiest pieces of land in the state.”
“What it means for Clayton is that it will be the shining star for us,” McLeod said. “I don’t know how fortunate Clayton could be to have that happen for us.”
Balloons, horse racing
Worley and her brother, Ray Earp Jr., inherited the land on Covered Bridge Road from their father, an accomplished surgeon who bought the tract in 1951.
Their dad, Raymond Elmore Earp, used the land to raise hogs, turkeys and grain. A founding board member of the county hospital in Smithfield, he donated some of his land to a church.
His children continued that sharing tradition in the late 1980s, when they allowed Clayton clubs to use the land for the annual Triangle Balloon Classic. The three-day competitions drew dozens of hot-air balloons and tens of thousands of fans.
The family went a step further in 1993 by opening up the farm to horse racing. The Raleigh Jaycees held the Brookhill Steeplechase on the Earp land until 2007, when uncertainty about development forced the club to cancel the event.
Ray Earp Jr. died in a lawn mower accident in 2013, and his wife, Nancy, is the trustee to the estate.
McLeod said he remembers attending the horse races, where jockeys competed for cash prizes over jumps in grassy fields.
“They created a race track and had tents that people would sponsor,” he said. “It mimicked the style of the Kentucky Derby.”
But that was more than seven years ago. Now, a developer looks poised to bring even more people closer to the land coveted by many.