At first sight, the 3,800 acres that is Santaluz -- several miles inland from Del Mar in California's Northern San Diego County -- looks pretty barren. But that's the point: Developer DMB, of Scottsdale, Ariz., wanted the place to be different. And it is.

Sitting in stark contrast to its lush, plush, and well-known neighbors, Fairbanks Ranch and Rancho San Fe, the property is noticeably devoid of the decidedly non-indigenous palm trees, Bermuda grass, and ornamental shrubs that have come to be synonymous with the southern most end of Southern California.

To put it nicely, it isn't pretty, at least when compared to most other communities here.

Resistance Fades

"Just about everybody" responds that way when they first visit the latest in the string of DMB's award-winning developments, admits landscape project manager Greg Kaiser. But once they look around and learn why the place isn't just another "shrub it and sell it" project, they realize it has a beauty all its own. And many of them decide this is where they, too, want to put down their roots, right smack in the middle of the natural, if unspectacular, vegetation.

One of the most successful builders at Santaluz is Taylor Woodrow, the Bradenton, Fla.-based builder which brought in DMB to develop the property in the late 1990s. Taylor Woodrow has sold out its 80 Casitas units (2,200-square-foot units priced from the high $500,000s to the low $700,000s) and has only a few of the 63 individual pads left for its Posadas product (family homes with 5,000 square feet or more and averaging nearly $1.5 million).

"There's very little resistance to the native environmental look" once people understand the reasons for it, says Barbara Stowers, vice president of sales and marketing for Taylor Woodrow's Southern California region. "Santaluz is not for everyone. But those to whom it does appeal say they feel like they are out in the country."

Neither Kaiser nor Stowers are so bold as to suggest that every piece of ground is as significant as this one, or even that each and every parcel should be left in its original state. But they do say that it is at least something to consider.

"We realize that it's not possible to replicate the Santaluz model everywhere," says Kaiser. "But we believe every builder -- whether they're building a handful of homes or hundreds -- needs to consider every acre as an opportunity to create a landscape that gives the community a sense of place related to their natural environment."

The Santaluz Model

One hundred years ago, what is now a Gold Nugget award winner was part of the coastal foothills that, inspired by the rolling hills, golden grasses, contrasting colors, and textures and distant views, late 19th Century American painters Benjamin Brown and Percy Gray captured on canvas for the world to see.

Santaluz landscaping is minimal and simple. The idea was to replicate the way the area looked a century ago. Courtesy But during the years, the property went through a succession of land uses. First, farmers took out much of the sage chaparral and large boulders so they could plant their fields with cereal and other grains. Next, cattle farmers took over. Then it became a tomato farm. And lastly, it was given back to the cows.

DMB's idea was to replicate the way the place was a century ago. After all, says landscaper Kaiser, "the Golden State was not called the Golden State for nothing. And it wasn't for the gold, either; it was for 'the amber waves of grain.' "

First, the landscaper reintroduced the native grasses. These ordinarily take two to three years to grow with water but perhaps as long as five years without. Still, that's at least three times as fast as the 15 years it would take the chaparral to reach maturity. Then some 1,200 native, drought-tolerant plants, mostly oaks and 15 different varieties of chaparral were added to the mix.

The result is what the developer calls a "transformational landscape," a seamless panorama without finished edges but with uninterrupted views all the way to the Pacific. "You can't tell where the landscaping starts and where it ends," Kaiser points out. "If you were here 100 years ago, this is what it would look like."

Like a forest that has been through a fire, the meadow grasses have appeared first. After a few more years, the new saplings will mature as well, and eventually the property will transition back to what it once was.

Future Payoff

Although DMB saved hundreds of thousands in grading costs, Kaiser says the company spent just about as much as it would have had it decided to turn Santaluz into the standard palm-laden water-guzzler. That's because what was saved in going native was poured into the community's entries and sales complex.

"It wasn't a cheaper installation," the landscape architect says, "but we were better able to target where we spent our money."

The real savings, though, transitions through to the eventual homeowners, who won't have to fertilize their lawns every three months and water the grass every few days. And it is this considerable savings that many buyers see as the final payoff to living here.

When water conservation is eventually mandated -- as it almost assuredly will be in a region which averages less than 10 inches of rain a year (most of it in a four-month span) -- and owners in neighboring communities watch their expensive grass, shrubs, and trees wither up and die, Santaluz residents will still be enjoying their love affair with nature.

"There is going to be a lot less maintenance here, and the [home] owners' association won't have to keep raising their fees. Once people realize that this is a more resourceful use of our resources, they fall in love with our concept," says Kaiser, whose four years at the property have completely changed the way he approaches his work as a landscaper for DMB.

"Because of what I've learned here, I don't think I could ever go back and plant a large development again," he explains. "The farmers who were here 100 years ago didn't bring water up to the land. Why the heck should we?"

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