In the movie "Field of Dreams," Kevin Costner is walking through a cornfield when he hears a voice advising, "If you build it, he will come."
But the voices in the heads of most post-recession land developers last year seemed to be of a more conservative supply-and-demand paradigm.
They're saying, among other things, "Make sure market research has shown they will come if you build it."
That caution is manifest in the number of residential building permits issued in York County last year, the lowest number issued in at least eight years.
The 637 permits issued in 2012 fell even lower than the historic low reached in 2011, during which there were 645 permits issued.
New builds are down 79.2 percent since peaking at 3,064 in 2005.
Leveling off? But there's some cause for optimism in the near-level comparison between 2011 and 2012, said Kurt Leitholf, chief of municipal planning at the York County Planning Commission.
Developers are still wary of the market, he said, but there are indications that builds will soon be on the uptick.
The number of subdivision and land development plans, the precursors to building permit issues, increased from 177 to 2011 to 219 last year, he said.
With the downturn in the economy, the 500-home developments of the early 2000s have been gone for years, he said, but developers are submitting smaller concepts.
"We're cautiously optimistic that we're just starting to see that turnaround and ... will eventually see those big numbers coming in again," he said.
Waiting: Plans have been approved for thousands of homes around York County, but savvy developers have been waiting for the economy to improve before putting shovel to earth, Leitholf said.
York Township engineer Jeff Sholly said there are several such scenarios in his jurisdiction, including a proposal for more than 500 single-family homes at Springwood Golf Course off Springwood Road.
"The plan was approved and they could build any time they want to," he said. "There's a number of plans like that."
But even as developers wait to build, there are new projects coming in for review -- and at a faster rate than when he started with the township in 2007, he said.
Leitholf said the biggest proposal submitted to the planning commission in 2013 belongs to York Township: a 245-unit, 30-acre apartment complex off South George Street.
Under that plan, Baltimore-based Multi-Properties Inc. wants to transform two now-defunct mobile home parks near Joppa Road into upscale apartments targeted at young professionals, said John Snyder, client manager and planner with RGS Associates in Lancaster, which is working with the developer.
Snyder said the project is evidence that there are opportunities in the market, depending on the market sector.
There's a need for multi-family housing in the midstate, he said, and developers feel confident about moving forward when their market analysis shows a need.
Costs up: Though there were fewer residential permits issued last year, the overall cost of all types of construction, including public, commercial and industrial permits, increased by more than $41 million.
The cost of construction for the projects for which developers applied for permits increased from $125.7 million in 2011 to $166.9 million last year. The number was buoyed by industrial permits, which jumped from $540,000 in 2011 to $33.2 million in 2012.
Since the recession, companies have favored building additions to constructing whole buildings, Leitholf said.
"That's definitely true," said Mike Smeltzer, executive director of the Manufacturers' Association of South Central Pennsylvania.
A good example is Harley-Davidson in Springettsbury Township, which chose to consolidate its operations under one roof and build an addition.
Others have built simply because the recession lowered the cost of building, perhaps adopting the "If you build it, they will come" strategy.
"The cost per square foot decreased, so some might have built because it's so cheap," Smeltzer said. "It's speculation, being built as an investment, not known demand."
-- Reach Christina Kauffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.