MILTON-FREEWATER — A shovel full of dirt tossed by Mayor Lewis Key signaled the start of an ambitious housing and commercial development Friday that’s been a long time coming.

A ceremonial groundbreaking at the 176-acre property one block south of the former Sykes call center was celebrated in front of a crowd of city officials, real estate professionals and the business community.

“We can’t tell you how long it’s going to take,” said Barry Weis, developer with Legacy Land Development.

He did, however, say pre-construction work is just one permit away from beginning. Earth-moving could begin in a week or so.

The project is expected to bring homes with some of the most stunning views of the community, as well as industry to land that’s been ripe for development for well over a decade.

Weis believes it also is part of a changing tide for the community, which has massive potential for wine industry development as the home of The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater American Viticultural Area.

The first 40 acres of the broader property have been annexed into the city for development.

Divided by Key Boulevard — up the road from the Sykes property and from Dunning Irrigation — the land to the east will be developed into 72 single-family lots with views of Stormy Canyon so close it feels as if you can reach out and touch it, Weis said.

The property to the west is ideal, he said, for numerous uses for the industrial zoning. Among them, he told attendees at Friday’s ceremony, could be a winery. The south side of the community is one spot that has so far not had a tie-in to the wine industry.

Another possible development is Weis’s own separate work with Legacy Renewables and a prospective plastic-to-fuel plant.

“This project really came about because we were looking for a piece of property to land this first plant,” Weis said.

“Why Milton-Freewater? The people involved in this are local. We’ve all been a part of the community for generations. You drive through town and you can see we need jobs.”

Friday’s event was a chance to introduce partners Brad Humbert, Casey Humbert and Shane McKibben to the community, as well as Lexar Homes as the builder on the residential side.

Partners presented Mayor Lewis Key and his wife, Patty, with a surprise in the first four street signs to have already been made and named in honor of themselves and their two children: Lewis, Gregory, Tracy and Patty loops.

“Their legacy will live on and live forever up here on the beautiful hill,” Weis said.

Lewis Key was just a youngster when his father and uncle farmed the property.

His dad, Claude Key, grew wheat and peas. Along with brother, Lloyd, and other investors, he started the Umatilla Cannery. They also had cattle.

Lewis Key said he remembered riding on the combine as a kid. “If you turn just right you get the chaff on your neck, you get the dirt in your eyes and you get the vibration at your feet,” he recalled.

When the state decided all of the land needed to be designated with zoning, the city had suggested a little spot on the north end would become the city limits and the rest could be farming.

With 2,000 head of cattle Key’s father didn’t think it would be a good combination of with the smell and new residences. The land ended up included in the city’s Urban Growth Area.

Development was slow and eventually Sykes came. Dunning Irrigation has followed in recent years. But the economics of the community and the housing market have taken a long time to align.

“Now all of a sudden it seems like we’ve had the stars line up,” Key said.

The project is one of two new housing developments slated for the community. The other is Vista Ridge, a 49-lot single-family home development slated for construction in seven phases.

Milton-Freewater City Manager Linda Hall said the city is happy to have new housing on its way.

“We’ve been waiting for a long time, and I think we’re ready,” she said.

“I think we’ve all been waiting for development on the south side.”

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321, vickihillhouse@wwub.com or on Twitter at https://twitter.com/VickiHillhouse.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.

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