Developing with nature Environment: A handful of developers are creating communities with an eye toward preserving the environment around homes.

December 07, 1997|By Charles Cohen | Charles Cohen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When people are interested in a lot at Paternal Gift, Sue Scheidt drives them past the meadows and then the trees, fanning by like a pictorial flip book, and says, "It's all the land on the left."

Actually, when someone buys an acre or an acre-and-a-half for $190,000 to $245,000, they're buying more than a lot, they're buying a concept.

Scheidt, who is developing her husband's 203-acre family farm, is banking that people will pay a premium to live in this development in pristine western Howard County. In return, they will get the use of seven barns and turn-out buildings overlooking seven pastures of roaming horses, a trout-stocked pond, two miles of walking trails and bridle paths, an orchard and picturesque views of the original 1803 estate.

Scheidt is one of a cadre of environmentally sensitive developers going to extremes to preserve the land. But the greening of developers has as much to do with market forces as it does with environmental awakenings. Developers are realizing that satisfying the minimum zoning regulations isn't enough to sell houses.

Until recently, environmental restrictions that preserved bits of nature such as wetlands and streambeds also provided the developers with a rationale.

After filling landscapes with homes, developers could claim that they had satisfied zoning regulations such as soil-retention ponds or pine-tree buffers along the roads that they've widened to handle emergency equipment. They had done what had been asked.

But in the marketplace, the homebuyers were not impressed. They wanted woods with walking trails and undisturbed views of rolling meadows. They wanted real country roads.

Some developers find themselves back before the zoning boards asking if they can do more than what is required, playing the role of steward of environmentally fragile areas.

"The difference is a culture and philosophy of saving a resource and, if you're doing a development, do it in a sensitive manner," said Arnold F. Kelly, who heads the Baltimore County's planning office. "Maybe there is a next generation of sensitivity that you hope is what everyone should be doing."

In Baltimore County, the next generation emerged after a fierce controversy between residents and Gaylord Brooks Realty Co. Inc., which was trying to develop cluster zoning in rural Monkton.

Facing court appeals, Gaylord Brooks devised alternative plans for its two developments: Magers Landing with 15 homes on 89 acres and Wesley Chapel Woods with 22 homes on 172 acres. As a result, Baltimore County officials are rethinking the idea of cluster zoning, looking for a zoning method that controls growth and meshes with the rural landscape.

Carroll Holzer, a Baltimore County attorney who represented both struggles against the developments, said it was old-fashioned community activism that forced the changes in the plans. He said cluster zoning, though well intentioned, would have created small suburban villages in the middle of the countryside.

"You can ride around Monkton and know that you don't see a whole lot of houses clustered around cul-de-sacs," Holzer said.

The lesson that came from the two community battles is that development must be compatible with the environment and the surrounding community.

"They [Gaylord Brooks] want to be viewed as environmentally sensitive developers, and I must say [they] did a better job on Wesley Chapel II than on Magers Landing," Holzer said.

Holzer said Magers Landing was the county's first cluster-zoning development and served as a test case for environmentalists, agricultural preservationists and developers. All parties learned how cluster zoning affected them.

"A lot of mistakes were made by the county and by the developer and by the community in the way they approached the issues," he said.

Richard Pais, a wildlife biologist who was hired by Gaylord Brooks to create a habitat design plan, said developers need to evolve from the image of being nature's worst enemy. The image exists not just among the public but within the industry itself.

"How do you expect to get people to integrate with nature if the message is, people destroy nature," he said.

Roland Harvey, owner of Natural Concerns Inc., a landscape design and gardening company that has repaired the damage of bulldozers, had a brutal view of developers, saying, "Most developers are going to rape the land for everything they can get."

Then he worked with Richard Moore, president of Gaylord Brooks Investment Co.

"Here's a man who wants to maintain the integrity of a natural landscape," Harvey said. "We spent hours and hours ribboning off what we kept," he said. "Instead of going into there with bulldozers, we went into the woods with a small skid loader and chain saws and landscape technicians and everyone knew what the mission was."

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