A decade ago, Randall Arendt felt a bit like the lone voice in the wilderness, crying out that profitable land development and environmental preservation don't have to be mutually exclusive. Today, the landscape planner, site designer, author, and lecturer feels more like Johnny Appleseed as the “conservation subdivisions” he has advocated sprout up across the country. Arendt, the sole practitioner at Greener Prospects consulting, has to turn down work almost as often as he takes it on.
Conservation subdivisions set aside large tracts—often half the property or more—of prime land within a parcel for preservation from development. The rest of the land is developed more densely, sometimes as traditional neighborhood developments. “The overall density is going to be the same” as if the land were developed traditionally, says Arendt. Developers like that.
Conservationists, too, tend to support the developments because prime lands—not just unbuildable wetlands—are preserved from development forever. And residents seem to like them enough to pay a premium for homes on small lots with the promise of acres of pristine land accessible to all.
One of Arendt's designs in North Florida—Centerville, near Tallahassee—recently sold 86 of the 87 lots in its first phase within the first seven hours. At Centerville, about 70 percent of the former 975-acre hunting plantation will be preserved, with 200 homes on the remaining 30 percent. Centerville isn't the only example of conservation planning in Florida. WilsonMiller, a Naples, Fla.-based planning, design, and engineering firm has been hired by a number of developers of tens of thousands of acres in the fast-growing state.
They are charged with finding profitable ways to develop the land while conserving habitat, discouraging suburban sprawl, and appeasing rising opposition to growth. One of the most prominent examples is the entire east side of Collier County in Southwest Florida, where about 200,000 acres is expected to be developed under new state legislation called Rural Lands Stewardship. The owners of the huge chunks of agricultural land are able to sell their development rights to land developers interested in building denser subdivisions.
An extensive study was done to assess parcels that should be protected from development and others where development could be clustered. This isn't a granola exercise,” says Andrea Tyson, vice president of strategic planning at WilsonMiller. “This is capitalism mated with conservation. This one works for everybody. The landholder doesn't lose because the land doesn't get ripped away. He gets paid for credits that are used in an area that allows for more density. The developer gets his value because he is allowed to get higher density. And this is all at the cost of growth, not at the cost of the tax payer.”
Planners are hoping the result will be less sprawl, more open space, and preservation of the considerable agricultural land in the area. This helps implement a sustainable future for Florida, says Jim Paulmann, a vice president and principal at WilsonMiller. “This helps protect natural resources, support the continuation of agriculture, while at the same time, allowing sustainable growth and development,” he says.
Ground was broken on the first project under the program, a new Catholic university and town between Naples and Immokalee called Ave Maria, developed by Barron Collier Company and sponsored by Dominos Pizza founder and former Detroit Tigers owner Thomas S. Monaghan. The development rights transferred to the Ave Maria site allowed for 1,700 acres nearby to be set aside for preservation.
FAULTY LOGIC There are other hotbeds of conservation subdivisions around the country, says Dale Dean, marketing manager of Applied Ecological Services, a Wisconsin-based ecological consulting, contracting, and restoration firm with a growing business in conservation developments. Applied Ecological Services worked with one of the pioneering conservation subdivisions, Prairie Crossing, in Lake County, Ill. “In a nutshell, we see that the whole planning situation for development needs to be turned on its head,” says Dean. “Instead of looking at the environmental worth of the land last, you consider that first.” In the Midwest, that means setting aside or restoring portions of prairie rapidly disappearing to development, he says.