The first time the Lease family put a road into their 150-acre farm to begin building houses was in the late 1960s.
Jim Lease, 52, was still a child then.
He’s been leading efforts to continue the slow, methodical development of the Merri-Hill subdivision on the northeast side of the Village of Oregon for about 30 years.
With the approval of 12 more lots in September, his company, Lease Construction and Realty, is continuing its expansion toward the Fitchburg border, where the family’s land ends. The longest-operating real estate and home construction business in Oregon, it’s responsible for most of the approximately 100 single-family homes and duplexes in the subdivision.
The company remains family-run, with Jim managing the day-to-day operations and his brother, Joe, helping in property development. Lease works with carpenter Greg Bartell in building the homes.
The property that made up the farm was owned by Jim’s mom, Mary Jo Lease. She continues to provide land from the remaining acres she owns for about a dozen homes to be built every few years.
The family’s interest in developing its farm – which it called Merri-Hill for decades – goes back to Jim’s father, D. James Lease, who bought property from his father-in-law, Harold Thompson, and began building East Richards Road some 50 years ago.
Eventually, Jim Lease said, he plans to fill the entire remaining farm – essentially a couple of 40-acre plots remain – with about 130 more homes. He said he has no idea how long that will take.
In addition to continuing to develop homes, Lease has donated time into community projects. His father volunteered his labor to build the Kiser Park shelter (which later became the D. James Lease Memorial Park Shelter), and years later, Jim helped build the village’s skateboard park on Oak Street and the band shelter in Waterman Triangle Park.
He also coaches the ski and snowboard team at Madison West High School.
“My mom took us when we were younger and taught us all how to ski,” Lease said. “My brother and I started racing at Devil’s Head, and my interest just kind of progressed from there.”
Lease’s dad was in the process of building East Richards Road on land that had been the Lease and Thompson family farms when he was killed in a car accident in 1969.
The family continued that project and then years later decided to develop the Merri-Hill subdivision.
“My mom and grandpa went ahead and finished the street, and then sold lots, like two a year, for a long period of time until that road was completed,” Lease recalled. “When Richards Road filled up, we brought those lots in along Netherwood. It seemed to be going well, so we started coming from east to west through the rest of the property.”
In the mid-1980s, the family had a hayfield that was the north side of Netherwood Street, land that today is covered with housing.
“We brought those four lots in to begin with as a CSM (certified survey map) and then platted the rest of the ones we had on Netherwood,” Lease recalled, “which would be the final chunk between North Perry Parkway and Oak Street.”
The Leases followed by extending North Perry Parkway north, connecting East Netherwood Street with East Richards Road. That provided another 20 to 24 lots for development.
“When Perry Parkway went in, I guess it ushered us into the new era of putting in streets and buildings,” Lease explained. “Then we just kept coming in at 10- or 12-lot phases, until we got to Thompson Drive behind Walgreens.”
In 2012, he extended Thompson Drive from a couple hundred feet off East Richards Road to Netherwood Street, a block east of North Main Street, creating eight duplex lots.
He’s in the process of constructing the last duplex, which he plans to hold on to as rental property. Next year, he plans to build three duplexes and nine single-family homes, most around 2,000 square feet in size.
“Every time we cut a street in, somebody asks if we’re going to be putting any duplex lots in,” Lease said.
Background in building
Lease, a 1983 Oregon High School graduate, began building homes after high school.
At the time, he worked for Ken Buroker, who had built homes for Lease’s father. Five or six years later, Buroker retired and Lease started his own business and continued developing the family’s subdivision.
“The last year or so before (Buroker) retired, I got a couple of the contract homes myself and we built a couple of duplexes,” Lease recalled. “So while he was still around, I had some general contracting experience.”
He opened his company in 1986, got his real estate broker’s license in the early 1990s and has been building and selling homes ever since.
Lease said he likes the entire process, from beginning to end, which often involves selling the land, designing the home and building it.
“I like building things,” he said. “I’ve designed a lot of the homes myself, and I like figuring things out.”
He also enjoys putting homeowners into the right homes for their lifestyle.
“We started out building a lot for first-time homeowners, and they really appreciate that,” he said. “I like getting people into homes that work for them and how they want things to be.”