Development that fits the dunes Sanctuary: A neighbor helps a cash-strapped farmer work out a development plan that places five houses instead of 32 on forested sand dunes that serve as a migratory bird sanctuary.

On the Bay

November 14, 1997|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

VERY FEW PEOPLE enjoy seeing farms and other open spaces go up in cookie-cutter subdivisions, but most are resigned to it.

"Soybeans and trees just can't compete with development prices for land," is the common wisdom.

But think again. Just see what an old farmer and a young developer are doing with a unique site that is one of the prettiest along the entire shoreline of Chesapeake Bay.

Near Eastville, in Northampton County on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, a series of ancient sand dunes rises from the bay beachfront as high as 70 feet.

Forested in pine, gum and holly, the dunes are an important sanctuary for clouds of migrant songbirds from the Eastern seaboard.

They funnel to the slender tip of the Delmarva Peninsula, resting and feeding and awaiting favorable winds, before making the jump across the Chesapeake's wide mouth.

The shoreline habitat bordering the "sandhills," as they are called, is also habitat for an endangered species of tiger beetle.

In 1926, Edgar Sturgis' grandfather bought a tract that included about 100 acres of the dune system. Ever since, the Sturgises have farmed the tillable land and protected the dune forests.

The last thing that he ever wanted there, the 66-year-old Sturgis said as we walked in the forest a few weeks ago, was a housing development.

Farm debt piles up

But debt on the farm had piled up, and he was going to have to sell. Top dollar, Sturgis originally figured, would come from a traditional developer.

County zoning would have allowed the 96-acre tract to be chopped into at least 32 housing lots, including more than a dozen less than 100 feet from the beach.

Just the roads needed for this, at a legal minimum width of 60 feet, would have destroyed or altered substantial parts of the forested dune ecosystem.

Enter Eyre Baldwin, 35, a friend and Sturgis' neighbor. Baldwin's father, Furlong, is chairman and chief executive of Mercantile Safe Deposit and Trust Co. The Baldwin estate near Eastville, Eyre Hall, has been in the family for more than 300 years.

"Ideally, these dunes would never be developed, but the reality is, they were going to be," the younger Baldwin said as we looked across to Virginia's Piankatank River on the western shore.

Working with Sturgis, Baldwin devised a radically different development plan for the tract.

Little disturbance to forest

It was limited to five homesites, with very little disturbance of the forest outside the actual "footprint" of the houses. None is closer than 100 yards to the shorefront.

A single road serving the sites will be 16 feet wide, instead of 60, and required an exemption from the county. It will be constructed of materials recycled from a bridge resurfacing project in the area.

The land outside the five lots will be permanently protected from further development under an agreement with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, an independent state agency that has protected 105,000 acres with conservation easements.

And how much, you may ask, did Sturgis give up to develop with an eye toward nature instead of maximizing his return?

Baldwin did not disclose figures, but suffice it to say that, with three of the five lots already sold, Sturgis should realize hundreds of thousands of dollars more than if he had given the land to a business-as-usual development.

Farming rights retained

And Sturgis will retain ownership and farming rights of the tillable acreage in the parcel.

The few lots are selling, Baldwin says, "for big, big bucks."

The reason is twofold.

First, it is becoming clear that people will pay a large premium for places where they know the natural surroundings will be protected.

Second, for those in high income brackets, the law provides advantageous tax write-offs for foregoing, in effect, the profits from developing extra lots by placing conservation easements on property.

In other words, the people who will build five homes where 32 or more might have gone can take substantial deductions for not developing to the maximum.

It's a lesson that soybeans and forests, though they may not out-compete development, can complement and coexist with it. It's also a lesson that there's more than one way to develop open space.

Farmers have long been aware that maximum crop yields don't necessarily equal maximum profits. Lower yields, with lower inputs of labor and capital, often net more money.

And so it may be, too, with houses. Putting the maximum on the land may not maximize one's return.

Land in this country is still so abundant and cheap that in using it to house ourselves, we are as wasteful and uncreative as we were with energy before the Arab oil embargo more than two decades ago.

Same lesson preached

But that is changing, and the innovative project by Baldwin and Edgar Sturgis is not alone.

Recently I wrote about Douglas Worrall, a Baltimore county lawyer and estate planning specialist who preaches much the same lesson.

He often advises farmers and other large landowners that they can do better by preserving much of what they own through easements, taking the tax write-offs and investing their savings.

"Development price," he points out, is not what developers actually pay landowners; and long delays from getting permits, environmental challenges and economic downturns that slow vTC development can further delay and erode landowners' actual profits from traditional development.

We need a suite of better controls on sprawl development; but we also need some education in how development can be done.

Baldwin recalls that even the bulldozer operator brought in to sculpt out roads and homesites "had to be re-educated -- his first thought was to bring in his biggest machine and start pushing trees. He just never thought about doing it any other way."

Pub Date: 11/14/97

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