MANCHESTER - At one time, a 61-acre parcel of prime farmland along Bachman Road was to become the largest housing project ever proposed here.
But, after a summer of public meetings, neighborhood protests and zoning variance decisions, the project's developers scaled back what only eight months ago was a 266-home subdivision.
That scaled-back version contains large amounts of open space, a comprehensive road system and about 165 single-family homes perched on the site of the former Dell family farm in the northwest part of town.
"This is all part of the same process we started a while ago," said Doug Trettien, a planner with Vanmar Associates, the Mount Airy planning firm representing developer Henry L. Blevins. "I'm hoping this time goes smoother."
Smoother, that is, than the last time through the town and county planning process.
It was in late February that Blevins first told the town of his plans to develop the property.
Since then, the project has faced several planning meetings and considerable citizen opposition, despite general support from county and town planning officials.
And even though the 266-unit plan was shot down after hundreds of neighbors in adjacent Whispering Valley and Holland Hills jammed meeting halls with protests and petitions, Blevins continues to press on with his latest development plans.
Trettien said that the delays in the project could work to its advantage, as the entry-level housing market is still quite good right now.
"I don't think the delays have hurt us that much," Trettien said. "All along, we have been proposing housing that people can afford, and that segment of the market is doing OK right now."
Trettien informally presented the scaled-back plans to the town Planning and Zoning Commission Monday night. County planners are set to review those plans by the end of the month.
As before, town planning officials are looking favorably on the Dell project.
On the lookout for ways to help pay for an $11 million sewage treatment plant expansion, Manchester officials have expressed support for clustered housing developments which would produce more revenue-producing hookups.
"Cluster is the way we are going," said Miriam DePalmer, the town's zoning administrator.
A cluster development allows construction of more homes per acre than is permitted by zoning in exchange for freeing up green space, wetlands and wilderness areas. For example, this second formal proposal to develop the Dell property calls for 165 homes to be built on about 40 of the site's 61 acres.
The town's zoning ordinance allows four homes an acre on the site, or a total of 244 homes. The developer had originally asked for a zoning exception to allow the higher density number of 266.
Clustering, town officials say, is the way to add enough homes to the sewage system without developing large amounts of Manchester's farmland.
Blevins, who has an option to buy the tract for $1.35 million, has said all along that he has wanted to work with the community.
And, for now at least, members of the community seem to believe him.
"I really think Mr. Blevins wants to work with us," said Michael F.
Stielper, a seven-year resident of the area who this summer was one of the organizers of the petition drive against the development.
"He really seems to be up-front, and it looks overall that (the developers) work with whatever they are given."
Early protests against the development encompassed more than just its size. Residents complained of the building of town houses and of four-unit "quadplexes," saying such housing brings "the wrong element," according to testimony during a public hearing this summer.
They also thought the relatively low asking prices -- about $80,000 to $100,000 -- would lower the property values of nearby houses in this town composed mainly of single-family homes.
"I don't think we're against development," Stielper said. "But we were definitely against the town houses and the quadplexes. If we were against what he's proposing now, we'd be against the kinds of homes that we live in ourselves."
The Dell project is still expected to cater to first-time homebuyers, said Trettien.
Back in May, before all of the opposition surfaced, the project was expected to be under construction by now. While Trettien would not guess when construction would begin, he did say he and Blevins hoped to be building by this time next year.
Monday night's town Planning and Zoning Commission began the next round in the approval process. The county's planning department will review the plans on Dec. 27. Blevins then is expected to go in front of town planning officials on Jan. 21.