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Subdivision designs can be profitable, environmentally sensitive

Between the Lines

OCEAN SPRINGS — One of the things I like most about older neighborhoods on the Coast is the mature landscaping. Large trees make a shady canopy over the homes and streets, and flowers are everywhere this time of year. The buildings are softened and enhanced by all the mature vegetation around the homes, and blend into the landscape instead of sticking out like a sore thumb. Besides being attractive and soothing, the trees shade the home and reduce air conditioning bills.

Then we have new subdivisions. Many times the developer goes in, clears off every tree, shrub and every living thing in sight, and then plops down cookie-cutter houses in neat plots. I find these new subdivisions very sterile and unappealing. I’ve also seen a great deal of erosion from these sites when large acreages are scalped without using adequate erosion control techniques.

I always knew there was a better way. How nice to learn recently that “conservation design that is environmentally green is green economically as well.” That’s a quote from Randall Arendt, who recently was the keynote speaker at “Economic Opportunities and Conservation Success — A Coastal Development Strategies Conference” held recently in Gulfport by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources.

Arendt, who is the author of books such as “Conservation Design for Subdivisions, A Practical Guide for Creating Open Space Networks,” argues that sensitive, environmentally sound development can actually create better sales potential and profitability.

A case study he gives is work done for a developer whose original plans called for laying out a subdivision in neat grids after taking down every tree and shrub in the area. The developer recognized that many of the trees had value, and was reluctant to cut them all down. Arendt showed the developer how he could save the trees, respect the natural terrain and design around existing natural features — and save $250,000 in earth-moving costs.

Arendt said less site disturbance and less earth moving can make both economic and environmental sense. Unfortunately, sometimes the very zoning ordinances meant to enhance a community can actually work against conservation design. For example, Arendt says that mandating minimum lot sizes of two acres can make it difficult to preserve sensitive natural areas such as wetlands within the subdivision.

Instead, Arendt advocates the same overall density of homes (i.e., 40 homes in an 80-acre subdivision) but that the homes be clustered together on smaller lots with larger plots of land within the subdivision left undisturbed for use for recreation and viewing enjoyment. A lawn that takes only five minutes to mow but has a 500-acre view is the idea.

“The whole secret to reducing site disturbance is to not spread out,” he said. “Bigger lots with large setbacks required by zoning ordinances aren’t always better. Zoning code rules can actually require developers to consume more land. You can’t have an oasis of open space if you require large lots throughout the community.”

One might argue that a potential homeowner would rather own two acres than one. But Arendt says with his plan, each homeowner has his acre and access to another 40 acres of open space that can be used for walking, bike riding, soccer, birdwatching or other recreation.

Arendt calls zoning laws the DNA or genetic code of communities: Zoning determines what communities are going to be when they grow up. And if there is one “cardinal sin” against conservation design, it is bad zoning laws across the country.

“Devastation can be created by developers simply following conventional zoning regulations,” Arendt said. “Instead we should let the land tell us what is appropriate. The best views and the best marketability come from preserving natural areas.”

Properly done, developers can actually save money and charge more for smaller lots by creating a subdivision that is visually appealing and conserves open space.

Arendt says the popularity of golf course communities proves that open space communities aren’t just some academic, ivory-tower concept. Golf course communities are increasingly popular, and yet many people who live in a golf course community don’t play golf. They are attracted, instead, by the open space.

“It is more uplifting to look at a golf course green rather than garage doors across the street,” Arendt said. “And developers can save even more money by not building the golf course. The green hook works even without the golf course.”

Arendt says people will buy homes in environmentally sound, open-space communities. In fact, some surveys show these types of homes have greater sales appeal and appreciate in value faster than conventional subdivisions.

The bottom line according to Arendt: “Environmentally sound can equal financially prosperous.”

Becky Gillette is a staff writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. Her e-mail address is mullein@datasync.com.

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