It's not unusual to hear land planners talk about communities that have dedicated themselves to being good stewards, about local officials and developers working together to preserve precious resources, about building plans that promise to maintain habitats and open space. There's a lot of that talk connected with Rancho Viejo de Santa Fe, an 11,000-acre, mixed-use, mixed-income, master planned community just south of the city of Santa Fe, N.M., that has pledged to keep 50 percent of its land as open space. But you know that all these (sometimes) lofty ideals have truly made a dent in the local psyche when an on-site construction manager, the guy tasked with the gritty business of getting houses built, buys into the program.

Just ask Dan Russell, home building manager for Tempe, Ariz.-based SunCor Development Co., which is developing and building Rancho Viejo (Spanish for "old ranch"). "Before coming here, I built houses for 20 years in Phoenix, where it was all rooftops and garage fronts," says Russell, who lives at Rancho Viejo. "Here, you truly have a traditional village community where you have a diverse product, half-million-dollar homes across from $150,000 houses, with a central plaza within each community and a mix of commercial, retail, and trail systems.

"There's a walk that goes along the south side of the community, along a road called A Van Nu Po, where if you look back to the north you'd have a hard time picking out the houses," Russell continues with genuine excitement. "Because the land is hilly and tree-lined with junipers, you wouldn't know there were houses there, and there are 500 of them! I walk those trails every day and see my neighbors every evening."

At Rancho Viejo, homes in the Courtyard series feature architectural elements that have become synonymous with Santa Fe style: flat rooflines, courtyards, stylized entries, and stucco-finished curves.
D.A. Horchner/Design Workshop At Rancho Viejo, homes in the Courtyard series feature architectural elements that have become synonymous with Santa Fe style: flat rooflines, courtyards, stylized entries, and stucco-finished curves.

Development plans for Rancho Viejo, which have been percolating for more than 20 years, were not pursued in isolation, but rather against a backdrop of what many see as indifferent suburban development in the Santa Fe area. While the compact, traditional pattern of old Santa Fe has attracted its share of inhabitants, the area's many transplants have more often chosen to live on two- to 10-acre lots in large suburban developments, which have often been harmful to the region's natural resources. Residents of Santa Fe generally have rejected the idea of infill development within the city, which has left the corridor to the south, home to Rancho Viejo, as the area's only real growth option.

D.A. Horchner/Design Workshop

"At the time SunCor entered into its agreement with the original landowner, there were a lot of skeptics about development in Santa Fe County," says Joe Porter, a principal at Design Workshop, a land planning, landscape architecture, and urban design firm based in Denver. "There was sprawl and a resource-consuming development pattern that nobody really liked, and I don't think the city [of Santa Fe] or anyone trusted the county to come up with a plan to manage this growth. Within the environmental community, Rancho Viejo had become the poster child for sprawl, or at least that was the fear."

In 1997, SunCor and Design Workshop began informal talks with Santa Fe County planners about how to change the pattern of sprawl and found that they had some principles in common. These included protecting the visual and environmental values of the land; clustering development in traditional New Mexican settlements or villages; offering affordable housing and jobs for locals; providing adequate water; and helping establish an ongoing community-development process that would provide an alternative to sprawl.

From these talks, which spanned 18 months and eventually involved county and city government, SunCor officials, Design Workshop planners, landowners, utilities, and local institutions, came a 17,000-acre Community College District plan that put into code a number of those original common principles. As a way to demonstrate its commitment to the region's new land-use guidelines, SunCor created what was essentially a 350-unit demonstration village at Rancho Viejo, which is located within the Community College District. "The first village was designed to stand on its own if everything fell apart and there were no long-term approvals," says Porter. "We wanted to create more of a clustered village pattern that preserved open space. It was a way to demonstrate that we could all walk our talk."

Those first 350 units went on sale in November 1998; today, there are just three spec homes left in that first phase. Current activity is centered on the village of Windmill Ridge, which will eventually include 321 units. At build-out, which could take as long as 40 years, the 11,000-acre Rancho Viejo will include seven mixed-use villages with 13,000 homes. SunCor is currently developing the first 2,500 acres of the 11,000-acre tract, but has the first right of refusal on an additional 10,500 acres.

SunCor used a variety of architects to come up with Rancho Viejo's 11 prototype home designs, which range in size from 1,232 square feet (currently starting at $169,990) to 2,965 square feet (base price, $397,990). Homeowners can also purchase estate lots and put up custom homes that fit within the architectural style of Rancho Viejo.

D.A. Horchner/Design Workshop

Not surprisingly, that architectural outlook could loosely be called Santa Fe style: sculpted, stucco-finished dwellings with flat parapet roofs; peeled-log touches here and there; and a color scheme that's long on muted earth tones. "There are three basic styles, Pueblo, Territorial, and Contemporary Southwestern, but we've tried to keep all of them to a very low profile so that they're basically the same height as the landscaping," says SunCor's architectural manager Steve Stiemsma. (SunCor recently switched to using in-house architects for its product mix; Scottsdale, Ariz. based Linderoth Associates was largely responsible for initial designs.) Inside, the homes offer what today's home buyers want: open kitchens, high ceilings, and interiors that extend to courtyards and other exterior spaces.

D.A. Horchner/Design Workshop

In this drought-plagued desert, landscaping with native plants and a general focus on water retention is paramount, so homes are sited and built to take advantage of every drop of Santa Fe's precious rainfall, which averages just 14 inches a year (in 2002 only 8 inches fell). Rancho Viejo's master plan calls for clustering the greatest densities on flatter grasslands, which helps foster efficient irrigation. At least 50 percent of the land will be left vacant for parks and open space, which helps to recharge the aquifer. Beginning this year, underground cisterns will be a standard feature of every new home. They're designed to capture roof runoff for irrigation and cooling (see "Rain Check," below).

Cutting-edge financial considerations are also in play at Ranch Viejo. Rather than buying the land outright, SunCor pays the original landowners (a group called the Rancho Viejo Limited Partnership) a percentage of each unit that is constructed. When SunCor closes on a home, a check is written to the Partnership; the amount of each check is spelled out in the agreement and is based on land value. The new homeowner then owns the land.

The Cielo plan from the Vista series features a dramatic cylindrical entry (above) and an open layout as well as a wood-burning kiva fireplace and sculpted timbers called vigas, the Spanish word for beams.
D.A. Horchner/Design Workshop The Cielo plan from the Vista series features a dramatic cylindrical entry (above) and an open layout as well as a wood-burning kiva fireplace and sculpted timbers called vigas, the Spanish word for beams.

The win-win domino effect of this unusual arrangement means that SunCor doesn't have big interest payments, which means it's not under pressure to develop the land hastily. In turn, the landowner realizes more of a profit than if he had sold the property outright. And, since the developer did not buy the property outright, it's not passing on the open-space costs to home buyers. Covenants spell out how the open space will be maintained and cover issues regarding the future sales of homes. A vibrant affordable housing program has also been up and running since SunCor began construction back in 1998.

Those associated with Rancho Viejo's successful launch trace the general feeling of goodwill and successful development back to those initial discussions among SunCor, Design Workshop, the original landowner, and local government officials. "It resulted in a marvelously innovative zoning plan that protects all of the community values but does it in a way that allows the developer to do a quality development," says Porter.

"A lot of the values of New Urbanism were used to establish what is now the Community College District plan, which for our part has been an intangible sales tool," says Ike Pino, a former Santa Fe city manager, subdivision designer, and, most recently, Rancho Viejo's general manager. "The large areas of open space, landscape treatments, and architectural features are things that Joe Six Pack is not even familiar with, but they've all been calculated to make him feel good the minute he drives into the community. Having those values translated into requirements of the College District has served us well in terms of our ambiance and our ability to sell homes."

Project: Rancho Viejo de Santa Fe, Santa Fe, N.M.; Size: 11,000 acres (first 2,500 acres under development); Density: three units per acre; Total units: approximately 3,600 for first phase of development; Price: $169,900 to $397,990; Developer/builder/architect: SunCor Development Co., Tempe, Ariz.; Land planner/landscape architect: Design Workshop, Denver

Rain Check Underground cisterns capture what falls from the sky at Rancho Viejo.

"It's just the right thing to do right now," says SunCor's Dan Russell. "The cheapest water you're ever going to get falls down from the sky." Rainwater harvesting is a key component of Rancho Viejo's conservation program. In March, in conjunction with Santa Fe's RainCapture Inc., Rancho Viejo began installing fully automated rainwater harvesting systems--cisterns--with every new home. These 600- and 1,200-gallon underground systems are designed to capture and use much of the water that lands on the roof, draining the runoff into French drains that empty into a cistern. A standard system provides a significant portion of the water needed for landscaping; upgrades are available that allow almost any home to capture 100 percent of the water needed for landscaping and evaporative coolers, thus reducing total household demand for potable water by up to 40 percent. These systems are expected to pay for themselves within five to eight years.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Denver, CO.