Mike Lemke says it was the pride in ownership he observed at La Cobre Mina that first drew him and his brother Eric Lemke to the development. On Aug. 3, Miramont Homes, which is co-owned by the Lemke brothers, officially broke ground to build 38 new homes in the Copperopolis subdivision.
La Cobre Mina is one of many housing projects in Copperopolis that fell victim to the Great Recession. At the time the original developer went bankrupt, the subdivision consisted of 18 homes that were built in the early 2000s in an area called Unit 1.
Unit 2 was subsequently reverted back to acreage by the county in 2010 although there there was “significant infrastructure” in place, according to Mike Lemke.
“I objected very strenuously to making that decision because of the wastefulness involved there,” said Calaveras County Water District director and former District 4 Supervisor Russ Thomas, who attended the groundbreaking ceremony on Friday. “There had been $100,000 in entitlements, but they did it anyway. … For the legal department of the county to advise supervisors to remove those entitlements, all that logic is lost on me.”
The Lemkes, who built Conner Estates near Lake Tulloch as well as several other developments in Tuolumne County and Oakdale, got involved at La Cobre Mina about five years ago when they erected nine additional homes in Unit 1.
Over the past few years, the Lemkes have focused their attention on Unit 2 and reestablishing previous entitlements.
Although they have “done all the work,” Mike Lemke says that the process will not be finished until the final map for the development is approved by the county sometime next month. Until then, he says his project is “still vulnerable” to those who may oppose it.
Perhaps the strongest example of that reality is Sawmill Creek, an 800-home subdivision that was planned to accompany Castle and Cooke’s Copperopolis Town Square. That project was shut down by the Board of Supervisors in 2013 after county planners opted to not recommend the plan, citing a decades-old county general plan that listed much of the property as a protected “natural resource,” according to a previous Enterprise article.
Although Sawmill was denied “without prejudice,” leaving the door open for an amended plan and future development, the Copperopolis Town Square still sits in a field today. An updated general plan remains in the works.
A new place to settle down
La Cobre Mina currently offers six lots for sale in Unit 2, with three different plans ranging in price from the high $300,000s to mid $400,000s.
Lemke says he hopes to attract residents from inside the county who are seeking an aspirational home as well as commuters from outside the county looking to enjoy a more rural lifestyle and have access to the Bridlewood Equestrian Center located directly across the street.
Roughly half of the current demographic at La Cobre Mina moved from inside the county and the other half moved from outside, according to Lemke. Although over half of the currently-occupied homes are “active workforce-type people,” many of those interested in the Unit 2 lots are looking at future retirement.
“All of the residents are very interested in the rural lifestyle without actually living on a ranch. They like to be around it,” Lemke said on Monday. “A lot of them have horses next door or boats at the lake.”
When asked about the challenges of developing in Calaveras County, Lemke replied that there are “more difficult places to build” within California and that the state itself supplies many of those difficulties.
“It was difficult to get the gears turning again in Calaveras County,” Lemke said. “Some other sectors are ‘business as usual’; you pay your fees and you’re doing it. Here, we’ve become accustomed to the inactivity.
However, Lemke believes that the local economy is "reawakening."
"We’ve had a lot of folks in the county retire, and we have new people in different positions." Lemke continued, "We’re having to almost re-learn how a thriving economy works, transitioning from the survival years to the green production years.”
Lemke hopes that he and his brother’s renewed activity in Copperopolis after a hiatus in Tuolumne County will help break the ice for other developers.
“We didn’t give up on Calaveras County, but we couldn’t survive here. Now, we’re coming back to our community.”
As a local builder utilizing local labor and supplies, Lemke takes pride in the amount of money generated by his projects that goes back to the greater foothills community.
Based on an algorithm of fees, taxes, professional services and homebuyer spending, Lemke estimates that La Cobre Mina will generate a local economic benefit of $45.5 million if all of the total 65 units are filled.
Furthermore, Lemke says profits generated from developments may also re-enter the county through future building projects.
“(As a developer), it is so much more satisfying to be able to build community and generate economic activity in your own neighborhood than have to commute and build in metro centers,” Lemke said.
A growing market
According to Arnold-based broker associate Mike Karnes, the Calaveras County home market is slowly recovering from the 2007 collapse, though prices have not yet reached the peak experienced just before the crash.
“I would say that (Calaveras County) is a good market,” Karnes said on Tuesday. “The Bay Area market has recovered all the way since 2007 and exceeded that, so we’re a good buy.”
Karnes says the majority of growth in the county is occurring in Copperopolis, Valley Springs, Murphys and Greenhorn Creek in Angels Camp.
Countywide, Karnes has perceived a roughly 5 to 6 percent increase in total home inventory since last year. In the Copperopolis area alone, he estimates 80 homes for sale, and about 15 of those homes are new.
A U.S. Census Bureau survey estimates that zero homes were built in Copperopolis between 2014 and 2016 when the survey was taken. Between 2010 and 2013, approximately 11 new homes were built. However, roughly 45 percent of the town’s total 2,420 homes were built between 2000 and 2009.
Countywide, over 20 percent of the total 28,104 homes were built between 2000 and 2009, while only .7 percent of homes were built between 2010 and 2016.
Despite widespread chatter about a recent downturn in the Southern California housing market, Karnes doesn’t believe that Calaveras County will be negatively affected and may actually benefit from the situation for the time being.
“My opinion is that -- at some point -- how many buyers can spend $1 million on the low end? I’ve heard that the market is leveling and dropping a little bit, but I can’t believe that demand has dropped because people keep moving (to California),” Karnes said. “In our area, we haven’t gotten to those prices yet, so we’re in a good spot. But if that market stays low, it will eventually trickle up to us. It always does.”
In the meantime, Karnes says the local market is beginning to grow, attracting transplants from the Bay Area and Central Valley.
“In the last three years, activity has definitely picked up. Prices have gone up, and we’ve taken a lot of inventory off the market,” said Karnes. “As prices have started to move up, we’ve seen a lot of people who’ve been waiting to sell put their homes on the market.”