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  • JOSÉ LUIS VILLEGAS / jvillegas@sacbee.com

    Winchester Country Club, a golf community in rural Placer County, bankrupted its original developer, but its new owners are ready to test the housing market.

  • JOSÉ LUIS VILLEGAS / jvillegas@sacbee.com

    The club's owners hope to attract retiring baby boomers to the 136 vacant home sites they bought on a golf course designed by famed course architects Robert Trent Jones Sr. and his son, Robert Jr.

  • JOSÉ LUIS VILLEGAS / jvillegas@sacbee.com

    Chairs made from wine barrels are perched on the 15th tee at Winchester Country Club. Many Winchester homeowners are avid golfers who play the club's course, designed by famous course architects, three to five times a week.

  • José Luis Villegas / jvillegas@sacbee.com

    John Argent stands last week on the front porch of his home in Winchester Country Club near the town of Meadow Vista in the Sierra foothills.

Is it blue skies again for million-dollar homes?

Published: Sunday, Jun. 23, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Thursday, Sep. 12, 2013 - 9:20 am

A posh golf course community in rural Placer County that bankrupted bridge-building magnate C.C. Myers has been relaunched under new ownership.

But the question remains: Is the Sacramento region's housing market, which was hammered hard by the recession but is now recovering fast, ready for the Winchester Country Club, with its million-dollar houses in the boondocks?

Even during the housing bubble, Winchester had trouble selling its pricey lots. Now, however, experts say it may be perfectly poised to attract part of the massive wave of retiring baby boomers, especially with the price of entry for a house and golf membership far below what it was in the mid-2000s.

"I think it's a very viable option for buyers," said Greg Paquin, head of the Folsom-based Gregory Group, consultant to the new home industry.

Paquin said the state Department of Finance projects a nearly 42 percent increase in the number of residents over 65 in the next seven years. Many from the Bay Area and Sacramento will have the means and the inclination to buy a house in a place like Winchester, he said.

"I think they'll do well over the long term," Paquin said.

Real Capital Solutions, a Colorado-based investor in distressed real estate, purchased Winchester, bank-owned since its 2008 foreclosure, earlier this year.

Peter Wells, a Real Capital partner overseeing the project, said the company paid a bargain-basement price of $8.5 million. For that, Real Capital acquired 136 vacant home sites of 1 to 6 acres each along with the 225-acre golf course and 35,000-square-foot clubhouse.

The community, near the tiny town of Meadow Vista, consists of 409 home sites spread across nearly 1,200 acres covered in pine, oak and madrone. About 165 homes, many opulent mini-mansions, have been built.

Winchester was the vision of Myers, the legendary Sacramento highway contractor known for fixing the Santa Monica Freeway in record time, retrofitting a portion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and beating the deadline on the Big Fix project on Interstate 5 in downtown Sacramento.

Myers spent 20 years working to develop the former hunting preserve, but took on so much debt because of it that he was forced into a personal bankruptcy that cost him not only the golf course development but also his ownership stake in his construction company.

His debt payments for Winchester eventually mounted to $500,000 a month while income from the project dwindled far below that level, he said.

Myers said he isn't a golfer. "If I was, I would have been smart enough not to build it," he said. "I know how to build a bridge. I got into something there I didn't really know what I was doing."

In a phone interview with The Bee last week, he estimated he lost $150 million on Winchester.

He also lost his own palatial home in the development in 2009. The 8,000-square-foot house featured a tunnel blasted out of solid rock. The bank initially listed the unfinished home for $1.5 million, but in 2010 Myers bought it back for $650,000.

Today, Myers, 75, lives in the hilltop home with its big copper cupolas, together with his wife and four dogs.

"Our dogs like it, and we like it," he said in his gravely voice Wednesday. "As much money as I lost up there, I ought to be able to get something back."

The community that cost him dearly remains "my dream and love," he said. "I want to see it finished. I'd like to be a part of getting it finished to the quality I wanted."

He said that so far, he has a positive impression of Real Capital Solutions and their plans for Winchester.

David Bennett, the new club manager, said the company wants to fulfill Myers' dream of making Winchester one of the premier golf communities in Northern California.

A former pro golfer, Bennett said the Winchester course – designed by legendary father-and-son golf course architects Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Robert Trent Jones Jr. – is one of the best in the state.

Its greens flow naturally with the rugged foothill landscape and wrap around the pine-covered hillsides.

"It's the kind of course you could play every day and not get bored," Bennett said.

Many current homeowners are avid golfers who play three to five times a week, he said.

One of those homeowners is John Argent, a member of Winchester's homeowners' association board, who has lived there since 2007. He said owners watched with dismay as their values shrank by half and the golf course fell into neglect under bank ownership, but they now believe it is on the rebound.

Despite the hard times, he said, Winchester has retained a vibrant sense of community, with many social occasions and close-knit neighbors. And the location, part way between the Sierra Nevada and the amenities available in suburban Roseville, remains a strong attraction, he said.

"You can play golf year round. You're an hour from Tahoe and you can go 30 minutes down the hill to Roseville and have terrific restaurants and shopping."

Peter Wells said Real Capital Solutions is banking on the community's appeal to aging baby boomers, including those with large amounts of equity in their Bay Area homes, who are "slowing down" and want a place where they can easily visit with their children and grandchildren.

"It's a viable, living, breathing community already," he said.

The bargain prices may also be an attraction. Golf club memberships that peaked at $80,000 are now going for $7,500.

Home sites that Myers said reached $600,000 at the height of the housing market boom are currently valued in the $200,000 range, said land appraiser David Jarrette. Construction estimates range from $100 to $200 per square foot, builders said.

Wells said many new homes in the community are expected to run about 3,000 square feet, half the size of some built last decade.

"This is going to be a test for the market," Jarrette said.

The community is in a woodsy setting off the beaten path. Meadow Vista has a grocery store and a gas station and not much else. The country club's manicured entrance sits near a pokey stretch of road where hand-lettered signs tacked to trees and poles advertise farm fresh eggs and rototilling services.

But there is easy access to Interstate 80. Auburn, which has many more services, is about 10 miles down the interstate. The Bay Area, Sacramento and Lake Tahoe are all a reasonable drive away.

Jarrette said the combination of luxury golf, a quiet rural setting and a direct connection to urban and resort areas could hold a strong appeal for the affluent empty nesters and retirees the owners are hoping to attract.

"I would think with the market rebounding and people getting tired of the rat race," he said, "this might hit at a good time."

Call The Bee's Hudson Sangree, (916) 321-1191.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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