Back to the land: Trends in conservation communities

Are conservation communities on a comeback? Some experts believe so. We profile three recent conservation community developments that re-think the decades-old planning model.
By Susan Bady, Contributing Editor | October 7, 2010

Green space creates value in residential communities. That’s not a new concept, but it is one worth revisiting as the housing market struggles back onto its feet. Home buyers are learning they can live well with smaller lots and closer proximity to their neighbors when the payoff is right outside their door — beautiful landscapes that will never change.


5 Trends in Conservation Communities

1. The housing mix includes more affordable options for first-time buyers as well as young families and empty nesters.

2. Traditional neighborhood
development design concepts are often incorporated.

3. Where possible, new communities leverage existing infrastructure and infill opportunities.

4. Builders and developers are focused on delivering high-performance homes that cost their owners less to operate.

5. Agriculture has become a more important component. Communities may feature organic gardens, orchards, and vineyards.


Conservation communities have been around in one form or another for at least 80 years. Towns like Greendale, Wis., founded in 1936, were planned with the intention of preserving green space for public use and enjoyment. Later on, real estate developers discovered that home buyers would pay a premium to live next to a golf course — even if they didn’t play golf.

“Those buyers will tell you, ‘We bought the house because we like the view across the fairway. We like to live next to protected green space,’” says Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow with the Urban Land Institute (ULI) in Washington, D.C., who published a book on conservation communities earlier this year.

Today, new golf course construction is virtually nonexistent. Golf courses cost millions of dollars to build and maintain, whereas leaving land in its natural state costs practically nothing. “With green space, you can have a picnic, play ball with your kids, walk your dog — anything you want,” says McMahon. “You get more bang for your buck.”

Home buyers have shown they’re willing to pay for access to the amenities in a conservation community because they translate into increased home values. “You can’t put a price on a sense of community, but it’s definitely a contributing factor,” says Garnie Nygren, director of operations at Serenbe in Palmetto, Ga., located about 25 miles southwest of Atlanta. Nygren says the homes at Serenbe are typically appraised 10 to 30 percent higher than homes in conventional communities in the Atlanta market.

In a 2010 survey of home buyers by Robert Charles Lesser & Co., 68 percent of respondents were currently living in a traditional suburban neighborhood, but only half said they would choose the same type of neighborhood for their next home. Instead, 19 percent said they would buy a detached home in a nature-preserve (conservation) community. Nineteen percent would buy a cottage or patio home and 45 percent would buy an attached duplex or triplex in a nature-preserve community.

Steve Nygren was retired when he and his wife, Marie, conceived their vision for Serenbe. That was in 2000. “People thought we were crazy,” says Steve’s daughter, Garnie Nygren. “But we wanted to demonstrate that conservation and development can go hand in hand.” Even though builders stopped taking down 20 to 30 lots at a time when the market crashed, sales activity continues to be brisk at Serenbe due to strong word of mouth.

Who’s buying?

Young families and empty nesters are the predominant demographic groups buying homes in conservation communities. Ted Harrison, president of Commonweal Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation and development firm in Santa Fe, N.M., says this buyer profile is driven as much by culture and lifestyle as household configuration.

“They’re a better-educated, more sophisticated, and more community-seeking segment of the market,” says Harrison. “In a place like Santa Fe and other parts of the American West with a strong landscape amenity, there are going to be people who aspire to be connected to that landscape and have access to fields and open spaces right outside their door.”

Jim Heid, founder of UrbanGreen, a sustainable development advisory firm based in San Francisco, says, “The people who are going to pay a premium to live in conservation communities are a self-selecting audience — sophisticated, passionate, and mission-driven.”

Site designer and conservation-plan advocate Randall Arendt observes that as the millennials swell in numbers, conservation communities will need to become more accessible to first-time buyers. Referring to Radburn, N.J., a planned community founded in 1929 that incorporates green space and a mix of housing types, Arendt says, “All the demographics that were the focus of Radburn, especially the working class — that’s what we need to get back to.”

At Serenbe, the buyer profile is all over the map, Nygren says. “We’ve got young couples in their 20s with no children to empty nesters and everything in between. About 70 percent are primary-home buyers. The common element is that they’re looking for a quality of life they can’t find in the city or suburbs.” Serenbe’s organic farm supplies on-site restaurants as well as residents, so the community attracts “foodies,” as well as hikers who enjoy its extensive trail system.

Place-making trumps space-making

Until recently, conventional developments have been the norm because most zoning encourages sprawl. Arendt wants to reverse that mindset. The founder of Greener Prospects in Narragansett, R.I., Arendt counsels builders and developers across the country and works with local code councils and governments to expedite the approval process for conservation communities. In some cases, he’s helped implement conservation plans, making it harder for conventional developments to get through the pipeline. Arendt has also redesigned communities to save developers money in infrastructure and grading costs and add value to each lot, while still allowing maximum density.

“The conservation element is the central organizing principle,” he says. “How you fill in the rest is a matter of choice and taste. I hope to see New Urbanist design elements, such as walkability, a mix of uses and housing types, and maybe even mass transit, being integrated more often into green-space planning.”

Beaten down by tight credit and competition from foreclosures, home builders are understandably cautious about their prospects when it comes to conservation communities.

“Ten years ago, conservation communities were a big deal,” says Bob Kennedy, vice president of sales and marketing for RHG Homes, Lilburn, Ga. “Nowadays home buyers aren’t consciously seeking them out.” There is an advantage for builders, however: “County commissioners are far more apt to give you some reductions elsewhere — smaller lots and even smaller square footage — if you include open space.”

Hubbell Homes in West Des Moines, Iowa, started developing and building conservation communities in 2006; they now account for six of the company’s 36 communities. Hubbell opened two new developments last year, each approximately 300 acres with 30 to 40 lots. “In 2009, sales at our conservation developments represented about 16.5 percent of total sales volume,” says Hubbell CEO Rick Tollakson. “This year it will be about 18 percent.”

Tollakson says conservation communities give his company a point of differentiation. “People can walk around and see the public spaces, trails, woodlands, and wildlife habitats. It does take awhile to get used to the prairie grasses because they aren’t like sod. It takes a few years for the prairie to establish itself, but once it does, it’s pretty amazing.”

He has had to make a few compromises. “We made our lots just a little bit bigger and reduced the open space because buyers wanted deeper backyards,” says Tollakson. The lot depth increased from 100 to 110 feet. Conventional lots in the Des Moines market are 125 feet deep. Some municipalities have asked Hubbell to include sidewalks (not the norm for conservation plans) on one or both sides of the street.

Just as conservation communities are not for every home buyer, they’re not the answer for every builder. “This is a very challenging time to try to ascertain what development model is going to succeed going forward,” says Heid. “But I think the real story will be told when the market comes back. My belief is that those projects that do things differently will appreciate faster and sell faster than the conventional models.”

Adds Arendt: “Communities with greenways have always been popular. Home builders would gain a lot by studying conservation development. When the economy turns around, I hope they’ll see this as a way to differentiate their product.”

A Broader Housing Mix

While there’s no one distinct buyer profile for conservation communities, they have traditionally appealed to young families and empty nesters. Galisteo Basin Preserve near Santa Fe, N.M., is part of the new generation of conservation developments offering a broad range of housing options. The first parcels sold at the community ranged from three to 263 acres and included equestrian/ranch homesteads as well as rural home sites. Sales of these properties generated not only income, but significant buzz about the project.

The next phase, Trenza, will be very different. This mixed-use village includes a high percentage of workforce and affordable housing, plus a café, post office, chapel, school, and offices. Ted Harrison, president of Commonweal Conservancy (the owner and developer), says this was part of the plan from the beginning. “Santa Fe County required that 15 percent of the housing at new communities of 25 lots or more be workforce or affordable housing. We embraced that and actually raised the ante: 30 percent of the housing will support moderate-income households.”

At press time, sales had not started at Trenza because Commonweal was still going through the entitlement process. “Now we’re waiting for approval on the final plat, the last step before a development permit is issued,” says Harrison. “We have about 1,200 people on an interest list.”

The village will be a mix of studio/cottage lofts, condominiums, townhomes, and single-family detached courtyard homes as well as custom homes. But it could be as long as three years before the launch of the first phase. “We’re going into a holding pattern to protect ourselves from coming into the market with more inventory than our relatively small market can handle,” he says.

Project: Galisteo Basin Preserve, Santa Fe, N.M.
Site area: 13,522 acres
Protected open space: 13,090 acres
Number of homes planned: 1,015
Number of sales to date: 39
Owner/developer: Commonweal Conservancy, Santa Fe, N.M.
Site planners: Site Workshop, Seattle; Civitas Urban Design & Planning, Vancouver, Canada
Architects: Trey Jordan Architecture, Santa Fe, N.M.; The Miller Hull Partnership, Seattle

Green Homes for Green Spaces

The Department of Energy recently called Ron Monahan the greenest developer in the U.S. Monahan is living up to that label with his latest community: The Ridge at Chukker Creek in Aiken, S.C.

The Ridge is comprised of three different properties: one within the city limits, one in the county, and a third with larger lots for horse farms. Conservation-planning specialist Randall Arendt consulted on the site design, which includes a nature preserve with a lake and more than 60 acres of woodlands. Every lot borders conservation land and has access to walking trails. “It’s rolling terrain with big hardwood trees and a lot of springs and streams,” says Monahan.

An equestrian center serves residents who own horses. “Rather than a golf course, we have these beautiful pastures that most of the homes back up to,” says Monahan.

The big story at The Ridge right now, though, is the homes. “Conservation was a big piece of the original vision, but when the market cooled off, we started focusing on homes that were very energy- and resource-efficient, and a bit smaller than what other builders were offering,” says Boulder, Colo.-based architect George Watt. Monahan put his own green-building guidelines in place for the community. “I brought in George and my energy raters and we held classes for local builders,” he says. “They got pretty excited.”

Spray foam insulation, high-efficiency HVAC systems, compact fluorescent lighting, Energy Star appliances, and gas tankless water heaters are some of the features that save home buyers a bundle on their utility bills. Coming soon are net-zero-energy homes with geothermal heat pumps and solar photovoltaic panels that can generate as much electricity as they use.

“The energy efficiency is really hitting home with people,” says Monahan. “A lot of them want to downsize, which fits right in with our approach.”

Aside from custom homes, most homes at The Ridge are 1,600 to 2,200 square feet and start in the $300,000s. 

Project: The Ridge at Chukker Creek, Aiken, S.C.
Site area: 400 acres
Protected open space: 320 acres
Number of homes planned: 270
Number of sales to date: 12
Owners: Ron Monahan and Iris Freeman
Developer: Ron Monahan Developers, Aiken, S.C.
Site planners: Greener Prospects, Narragansett, R.I., and George Watt Architecture, Boulder, Colo.

Blending Agriculture and New Urbanism

Serenbe, a mixed-use community in the Chattahoochee Hills near Atlanta, embraces nature, New Urbanist design, and organic farming. The master plan calls for three hamlets (villages) with a variety of options for singles, families, and empty nesters. Of the community’s 1,000 acres, 700 have been set aside as open space. Home prices range from $230,000 to $3 million, including custom homes.

Martin Dodson Homes of Douglasville, Ga., one of several builders at Serenbe, has built several custom homes there and is currently at work on a new product, the Nest cottages. A total of 15 Nest homes will be offered, ranging from 900 to 1,700 square feet and priced from $260,000 to $455,000. Since the model opened in July, five cottages have been sold.

Martin Dodson partner Chuck Saleeby believes the homes at Serenbe are being appraised at a higher value than comparable homes in conventional communities. Buyers like the quality of construction, green features, and low operating costs, but the uniqueness of the community is just as attractive. “Serenbe is unlike any other neighborhood that I know of in Atlanta,” says Saleeby. “It has a draw that most communities don’t have, with the green space, the EarthCraft construction, the live/work units, the commercial buildings, the bed-and-breakfast, the organic farm, the stables, and the fact that it’s 25 minutes from the airport but located in a completely undeveloped area.”

Project: Serenbe, Palmetto, Ga.
Site area: 1,000 acres
Protected open space: 700 acres
Number of homes planned: 1,000
Number of sales to date: 100
Owners: The Nygren Family, Palmetto, and Rawson Haverty Jr., Atlanta
Developer: Serenbe Development Corp., Palmetto
Site planner: Phillip Tabb, College Station, Texas
Architect: Lew Oliver Inc., Atlanta


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