It's not the model homes that sell buyers on the concept of moving beyond Orlando's fast-paced suburban sprawl to Harmony, Fla., 30 miles from the heart of Orlando. It's the electric-powered boat trip out on to the pristine waters of the development's Lake Buck that usually clinches the deal.

“When folks are out there, and they see nothing but trees all the way around that lake–and they know that is the way it's going to always be–that's where the deals get closed,” says Greg Golgowski, the community's conservation director. “That's where they get it.”

The “it” factor Golgowski is referring to is the realization that 70 percent of this 11,000-acre development located 45 minutes from Disney World will be left as natural preserves and parks for perpetuity. In a development model foreign to Florida, no homes will be built on the community's two natural lakes or its golf course. In fact, every homeowner in the community, not just the affluent, will have access to those views.

Developer Jim Lentz, a financier by trade, says preserving the community's natural features for all rather than a few makes good financial sense, as well as environmental. “When you do the math, your choices are [to] get the premium out of 400 lots or get the premium out of all 7,000 homes in the development because, all of a sudden, the lakes become everybody's home.”

NATURE SPEAKS: A developer counts on the environment surrounding new homes to attract potential buyers in Harmony, Fla. The “it” factor is also hitting home with the builder community. With 4,000 lots expected to come on line in the next three years, many builders seek to stake a claim in the community. Today, about 300 homes are built and another 100 are under construction. A year ago, Lentz brought in the capital partner Starwood Capital Group, in order to build the community infrastructure quickly. “We are trying to bring this along as fast as we can while maintaining quality,” Lentz said

INSPIRED VISION As a businessman, Lentz's plan for Harmony was to create a successful venture. But the project was born from his original intent to make his wife happy. “At the end of the day, I work for my wife,” he says.

In the late 1990s, Martha Lentz was working as director of the Orlando Humane Society and gathering information about how pet ownership made people healthier and happier and how natural environments helped people recover quicker from illness and suffer less pain. “She wanted to do a model program that showed the beneficial partnership between people, animals, and their relationship with nature,” says Lentz. So, she founded the non-profit Harmony Institute in 1996.

Lentz, whose career up to that point had involved helping to find financing for entities such as the City of Orlando and the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, started looking for developers to execute Martha's ideas.

“She felt that having the Institute involved to some degree in developing a community was a good thing,” says Lentz. “I started talking to developers to see if they would contribute some land to the Institute for this and, quite frankly, most thought it was a good idea, but that they had a business model and this was not their model. You can't blame them. Banks and Wall Street and all finance and real estate look backward, not forward.”

So Lentz took on the role of developer. He started looking for land and putting together a development team. At the same time, he decided it would be just as easy to build a big community as a little one. Eventually he settled on 11,000 acres off U.S. 192 in rural Osceola County with approval to build 7,200 homes. At the time, the land seemed to be in the middle of nowhere.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL.