By Iris Richmond. One of Tom Miller's precepts at Drees Company is that it never hurts to ask. And so he did. In early spring, he put to the city of Erlanger, Ky., a proposal. He suggested that two of home building's frequent adversaries embark on a joint effort to develop a park and open space system. Miller, the vice president of land development for the Fort Mitchell-based builder, says he envisioned their combined funds and expertise working to create a giant green corridor. A dual approach would not only enhance a local Drees community, he reckoned, it also would help the city preserve more land for public use.
Erlanger's quick acceptance solidified the public-private partnership between city and builder — a first of this type for both. Soon after, they contributed $60,000 (Erlanger $40,000, Drees $20,000) to hire Human Nature, a Cincinnati landscape architecture firm. The nearly complete site plan calls for joining the land within Drees' Lakemont community with Erlanger's neighboring open space. Completion of the proposed plan would create a 32-mile greenway corridor.
"This partnership at least triples the size of what Drees or Erlanger could have accomplished on their own," says Human Nature principal Chris Manning, who admits that his firm rarely, if ever, works with developers. "It's very unusual for the region to be thinking of green space this comprehensively. Our hope is that it sets a strong precedent for future developments."
Turning the Screw
"Some cities work with builders," says Miller, "but most see us as animal or tree killers. No-growth communities, in particular, won't have anything to do with a developer no matter what he does. All the same, by treating local jurisdictions as an ally instead of an enemy, everybody involved can get what they want."
Drees says understanding his wants is relatively simple: first, anything that makes the region more attractive will entice more home buyers to the area; and second, a greener development improves the chances of it selling out quickly.
Lakemont's sheer size causes the latter to be Miller's primary concern. Atop 373 acres, the 757-unit, hybrid community ranks as one of Drees' largest. Its total value at build-out will exceed $145 million. Construction began in October 2001 on the 10-year project, which features homes priced from $175,000 to $350,000. Greener Acres
Miller says that inspiration for the partnership came after he attended an Erlanger town meeting about a year ago. There he heard city administrator Bill Scheyer speak on the area's state of "green inventory." Thanks to a forest quality assessment performed by the Environmental Resource Management Center, in Highland Heights, Ky., both men learned that all green spaces are not created equal. Moreover, the acreage surrounding Lakemont contains some of the city's richest land — forests more than 250 years old.
"Stormwater is a big concern for us," says Scheyer. "We don't know how much of it these old forests absorb, but we do know they absorb far more than those converted and developed."
"Once soils have been disturbed," says the resource center's research director Dr. Barry Dalton, "you lose the top soil, or the native seed banks, and the forest quality diminishes. By preserving these older areas, they will continue to sponge up rainwater and detoxify pollutants, both in water and air."
Scheyer intended for the study, which cost the city $8,000, to be given to planners and developers to promote the preservation of "Erlanger's last great green space." Forming a partnership with a builder, however, was more than he ever expected.
"Most of our parks consist of a few picnic tables and maybe a baseball field," says Scheyer, "which is what we would have had if not for Drees' vision. This puts us on the front end, and, more importantly, it helps bridge the gap between developers and cities."
In addition to the $300,000 in taxes that Erlanger should receive each year from Lakemont, the city's direct cost savings in developing the open space system will be anywhere from $30,000 to more than $100,000. Although Scheyer credits his city with having good walking infrastructure, the proposed green corridor ultimately will provide a 10- to 15-mile interconnected set of trails. By contrast, he says, the city now has barely two miles of partly connected trails. Other components of the corridor will include a nature center and extensive reforestation.
Upon completion of the master planning process early next year, more asking will begin. Miller and Scheyer plan to invite neighboring cities and other builders to join their partnership. The Kentucky cities will include Edgewood, Covington and Ft. Wright; potential builders include Henry Fisher, in Cincinnati, and Arlinghaus Builders, in Edgewood. Scheyer says he believes that having the participation of the area's largest builder will pave the way for similar partnerships to form with other, smaller builders.
"The costs of the greenway connections and the loop could easily run into the millions and will require a multi-source funding strategy," says Manning, of Human Nature. "The commitment is many years," he says. "Depending on the rhythm of Drees' and Erlanger's continued leadership, something will be done either every year or once every five years."
"Builders and developers need to be willing to step forward and spend some money on greener communities," says Miller. Drees' contribution will be phased in to Lakemont's development costs and easily absorbed into the lot cost, he says. Both Miller and Scheyer declined to specify how much, overall, each faction is willing to spend. However, both say they are committed to the project.
"Even if it does take a little while," says Miller, "we know we're building toward something great: increased property value, better quality of life, and the long-term preservation of green space."
Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, November 2002