Conservation Subdivisions Coming to the Panhandleby Neil FleckensteinNRANDALL ARENDTative Floridians (and even recent arrivals) are all toofamiliar with the staggering pace of growth in theSunshine State. Between 1970 and 2005, an averageof 870 new residents arrived daily, so that by 2005, our isthmus paradise was home to an estimated 17.9 million residents.(In the interest of complete disclosure, I joined the club in1971). Florida now ranks fourth in the U.S. in population andis rapidly gaining on New York to claim the bronze medal. Theresulting explosion of residential development has led to thecreation of countless subdivisions built upon former farmlandsand forestlands.ral community. Homes – the same number as in a comparableconventional subdivision – are clustered on smaller lots on asmaller portion of the buildable landscape.A new twist on an old ideaThe idea of designing a community around protectedgreenspace has a long history in this country. In the 1730s,General James Oglethorpe’s plan for Savannah, Georgia,included the creation of the many park squares that remain thesignature design element of this vibrant city. In the mid 1800’s,the romantically designed suburbs, such as Llewellyn Park inNew Jersey and Riverside in Illinois, with their large expansesof land and shared open space, were a response to the crowded,unhealthy conditions in large cities. The Garden City Movement of the 1920s was defined by the creation of planned suburban communities like Radburn in Fairlawn, NJ and ChathamVillage in Pittsburgh, PA, which featured expanses of greenspace, pathways, and public gardens (Arendt, 1999a). Morerecently, the designers of conservation communities like PrairieCrossing in Grayslake, Illinois and Tryon Farm in MichiganCity, Indiana, have creatively clustered home sites to conservea significant portion of greenspace, connecting homeowners tonature while maintaining the ecological integrity of the landscape.Looking for alternatives to sprawling growth in the state’sremaining rural areas, Representative Randy Johnson (R- Celebration), Chairman of the Florida House Growth ManagementCommittee, recently invited the developers of the CentervilleConservation Community in Leon County to discuss this newconservation subdivision with the committee. In introducing Randall Arendt, one of Centerville’s designers, ChairmanJohnson noted that Centerville may exemplify “the wave of thefuture” for rural development in the Florida Panhandle. Giventhe legislators’ interest and the fact that several conservationbased developments are underway in the Panhandle, it seemedtimely to offer an overview of this important conservation tool.So, what is a conservation subdivision?Conservation subdivisions, also referred to as conservationcommunities or open space developments, are residential developments in which homes are clustered on smaller lots, allowinga significant amount of the landscape (typically 50 percent ormore) to be permanently protected as common greenspace.In conservation subdivisions, greenspace is NOT an afterthought, the byproduct of having wetlands, steep slopes, orother land that cannot be developed. Rather, protected greenspace is the central organizing principal of the development andthe means of protecting the character and integrity of the natu-RANDALL ARENDTExample of a conventional subdivision designExample of a conservation subdivision designRandall Arendt’s work in the 1990s introduced a new generation of planners and developers to the concept of using thenatural environment as a centerpiece around which to designhousing communities. Arendt popularized the term “conservation subdivision,” and identified the ecological and economicbenefits of green development (Arendt, 1999a; Arendt, 1996).Design and use of open spaceOne of Arendt’s innovations was developing a concise,four-step process to guide the design of conservation communi1ties.
LAURENCE KOPLIKgroundwater recharge zones in primaryCommon greenspace in Radburn.conservation areas; clustering developmentaway from water resources; and reducingimpervious surface area, thereby decreasingstormwater runoff by 20 to 60 percentcompared to conventional designs (Arendt,1996; Center for Watershed Protection [CWP],1998).The protection of critical habitat in and aroundwatercourses, waterbodies, and wetlands isa second important benefit of conservationdesign. A third advantage is the protection ofupland areas that provide habitat, forage, andgreen corridors for many species of birds,mammals, and reptiles.Briefly, the steps are:2. Locating homesites to best take advantage of views of theconservation areas (i.e., creating the most “view lots” possible);3. Aligning streets and nature trails to best serve homesiteswhile minimizing impacts on the landscape; and4. Drawing in the lot lines (Arendt, 1996).Arendt compares the process to designing a golf coursecommunity, with protected greenspace replacing the fairwaysand putting greens. Conservation subdivision regulationsoften require the protection of at least 50 percent of the site asgreenspace. The majority of this greenspace should be buildable land. Some ordinances also require contiguity of openspace (e.g., 75 percent in a contiguous tract) and connectivityto adjoining protected open space. Usage of theprotected areas varies according to the design ofthe community, the interests of homeowners, andrestrictions contained in local land developmentregulations. Potential uses of open space couldinclude passive recreation, small-scale farming,and selective harvest forestry. Ownership andmanagement options also vary, although the openspace frequently is dedicated to a homeowners’association and permanently conserved using aconservation easement, which is typically heldby a land trust or local government (Fowler andWenger, 2001).Economic benefits – Buyers are willing to pay more for landadjacent to protected greenspace. Nelson (2004) reports thatopen space and urban forests “overwhelmingly” affect the priceof neighboring properties. Homes in conservation subdivisions,despite smaller lot sizes, can sell for significantly more thanthose in conventional developments – as much as 33 percentmore by some estimates (McMahon & Pawlukiewicz, 2002;Fowler and Wenger, 2001; The Trust for Public Land, 1999;Arendt, 1996; Lacy, 1990). Homes in conservation communities also tend to sell faster (Mohamed, 2006; Arendt, 1996).Developers also enjoy potential cost savings associatedwith reduced infrastructure (roads, sidewalks, and utilities) andreduced land preparation costs required by compact conservation designs (Mohamed, 2006; Fowler & Wenger, 2001; Arendt,1996).Environmental and economic benefits2Environmental benefits – The mostimportant environmental benefit is waterLake Aldo Leopold at Prairie Crossing.quality protection. This derives fromseveral factors including the protectionof riparian buffers, waterbodies, wetlands, andPRAIRIE CROSSING1. Identifying primary conservation areas that must beprotected (wetlands, floodplains, and steep slopes), and secondary conservation areas that potentially should be protected tothe maximum extent possible (prime farmlands, healthy forests,and scenic, sensitive, or historically significant features);
Limitations of conservation subdivisionsThe conservation subdivision is not a panacea. Rather, it isone of several tools that can help to achieve the land conservation and housing goals of a community or region. Conservationdesign must be used in conjunction with – not as a substitutefor – more broad-based tools such as comprehensive growthmanagement plans, agricultural zoning, urban service boundaries, land acquisition, conservation easements, and the transferof development rights. There are also some critical limitationsto keep in mind.Encouraging sprawl - One persistent criticism ofconservation design is that it may actually encouragesprawl – albeit a greener form of sprawl – in formerlyundeveloped sites in rural areas. According to Daniels(1997), it can be argued that the role of cluster design isnot to conserve farmland and working rural landscapes butrather to protect scenic views and encourage more upperincome buyers to move to the countryside.Since homes in conservation subdivisionsare highly marketable, sell for a premium,and appreciate at a greater rate than homes inconventional subdivisions, there is reason tobe concerned that these green projects couldlead to the premature development of theresources they were designed to conserve.Conservation subdivisions coming to the FloridaPanhandleThe Red Hills region of north Florida and southwest Georgia is truly one of America’s unique landscapes. The NatureConservancy has designated this 300,000-acre region betweenTallahassee and Thomasville, Georgia, as “One of America’sLast Great Places.” The region is home to more than 60 protected plants and animals, the remnants of the great longleafpine forests of the southeastern United States, large quailhunting plantations, rolling hills, and red clay roads shaded bycentury oaks. Given the concerns regarding the connectionbetween conservation subdivisions and sprawl, the Tall TimbersLand Conservancy, the largest regional land trust in Floridaand Georgia, opposes allowing conservation subdivisions inthe heart of the Red Hills region. Tall Timbers’ concern is thefragmentation of the region’s natural resources and the impactthat would have on conservation efforts in the Red Hills. TallTimbers supports allowing conservation communities in urban fringe areas as a transition betweenurban and rural landscapes. In these areas, homescan easily be clustered, conserving greenspace tobuffer developed areas and working rural lands.“Laying out aconservationcommunity isa form of art.”Lack of affordable housing – Sinceconservation subdivisions typicallyfeature higher end, single-family homes,they often do not address a community’saffordable housing needs. (The EastLake Commons conservation communityin Atlanta, described elsewhere in thispublication, is one exception.)ELIZABETH BARRONInconsistent local ordinances – Local ordinances, whichcan vary greatly from one community to the next, playa critical role in guiding the design and development ofconservation communities and the quality and quantityof conservation land protected. For example, LeonCounty, Florida requires that conservation subdivisionspermanently protect a minimum of 50 percent of a siteas open space, while some Georgia communities onlyrequire 20 to 25 percent open space. Ordinances withlow conservation thresholds may offer little in the wayof protecting significant natural features or contributingto the conservation of a larger network of open space.(Northeastern Illinois PlanningCommission and Chicago Wilderness Fowler and Wenger , andArendt [1999b] offer several examplesof model conservation subdivisionordinances.)Several conservation-based developmentsare now underway in the Panhandle. One of theseis the Centerville Conservation Community inTallahassee. Centerville is located on the southern peripheryof the Red Hills region, where conservation easements, publicacquisition, and deeds of covenant currently protect more than135,000 of the region’s 300,000 acres. In Centerville, 200homes will be clustered on approximately 350 acres of landin the urban fringe zoning category, which typically requiresthree-acre lots. Approximately 65 percent of the 975-acre sitewill be permanently conserved in a conservation easement.This includes significant upland acreage set aside to protect thegopher tortoise (a species of special concern in Florida). Residents will be able to share extensive nature trails, two miles ofscenic pedestrian walkways, stocked fishing ponds, and horsestables.One of several ponds at Centerville Conservation Community.3
Crucial to protecting Centerville’s unique landscape is itsland management plan, which calls for the use of prescribedfire. Landowners throughout the Red Hills use this natural landmanagement tool to maintain the health of the ecosystem andreduce the risk of wildfire. Centerville’s land management planalso requires the planting of native plants, shrubs, and trees,including the restoration of longleaf pine and wiregrass.wetland systems as well as its mixed-use, pedestrian friendlydesign. On its 670-acre site, Prairie Crossing features hundredsof acres of conservation lands as well as a mixture of energyefficient, single-family homes and condominiums, shops andrestaurants, an organic farm, farmer’s market, and charterelementary school. A rail line (with two on-site stations) connects Prairie Crossing to the Chicago metropolitan area.Centerville’s managing partner Jon Kohler says, “Designing with nature in mind is not easy. Laying out a conservationcommunity is a form of art, and many engineers are not artists.”TOM FORMANThe public’s response to the Centerville ConservationCommunity has been overwhelmingly positive. More than halfthe lots sold within days of the initial public offering. Residents of nearby neighborhoods, initially skeptical about trafficand smaller lot sizes, have become supporters of Centerville,citing Kohler’s willingness to address their concerns and hisELIZABETH BARRONProtected farmland at Tryon Farm.Prescribed fire helps maintain a healthy forest at Centerville.desire to protect the integrity of the landscape. Even so, Kohlerdescribes Centerville’s path from concept to approval as anarduous journey. Staff from the Leon County Department ofGrowth and Environmental Management (GEM) attribute thelengthy process to several factors. Since it was the first conservation community in Leon County, there was a steep learningcurve for all involved. In addition, when Centerville was firstproposed, Leon County had not yet adopted a conservation subdivision ordinance to guide the review of such developments.Finally, this complex project required future land use map andzoning changes before site planning and permitting co