Housing turns 'green' Environment: The Baltimore area is nationally recognized for building environmentally friendly housing.

November 08, 1998|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

When developer Michael T. Rose decided to build his vision of an environmentally friendly neighborhood in Bowie, he was fully aware of the growing backlash against any type of development.

"Everyone is always saying, 'Look at those developers. They are destroying more trees,' " said Rose, president of the Michael T. Rose Co.

But in the 12 years since Rose conceived of his Bowie plan, the backlash has led to a new market for environmentally friendly housing that preserves land. And the Baltimore area has emerged as a nationally recognized hot spot for this kind of "green" housing.

Rose said the idea is to preserve trees, stream patterns and landscapes, making only necessary changes.

"There is no economic reason to do a lot of grading and clearing unless there is a market for it. It costs money to cut down trees," said Rose, who is nationally known for specializing in environmentally friendly housing. Maryland homebuyers "will pay more money for a lot if it has trees on it."

The 855 homes in his Northridge subdivision in Bowie, which is still being built, are clustered, have narrow roads, and few curbs and sidewalks. He said his efforts saved land, preserved dense woods in the 350-acre project and gave him an edge in selling houses.

"It's a beautiful neighborhood. The trees play a big part in that," said Brian Owens, 48, who has lived in the subdivision for five years. "You don't see this in traditional neighborhoods."

Although there are no statistics on the selling rate of environmentally sensitive houses, factors such as the state's strict environmental laws, Baltimore suburban developers and residents' concern for the Chesapeake Bay, their high education level and the area's increasingly competitive housing market all contribute to making this area the heart of the environmental housing industry on the East Coast.

"I think this area is one of the leaders of the country," said Alton Scavo, senior vice president of Columbia's Rouse Co. What is happening in Maryland "has become contagious. We get calls from around the country."

Environmentally friendly housing is a vague term. It can include anything from surrounding a house with woods to reducing the amounts of pollutants created by builders and residents to using solar-power panels or nontoxic paints.

But it generally refers to three types of houses: those that are energy efficient, constructed using recycled materials or cause the least amount of land disturbance before and after construction -- the most popular concept in Maryland.

In June, the National Association of Home Builders opened an office in Laurel, launching its sixth "Building Green" program -- the only one on the East Coast. The program is designed to educate and to track developers' progress in environmentally friendly housing.

This market "is becoming more formalized," said Peter Yost, the area's Building Green director. This area "is developing models for 'greenbuilders.' "

It is also leading to creation of groups like the Center for Chesapeake Communities, which is dedicated to researching methods of preserving Maryland's environment. The organization received a $68,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency in June to research and create a model plan for economical, environmentally sensitive housing.

"If development approaches are economically feasible, there is no reason not to" build environmentally friendly housing, said Susan Hall, the center's spokeswoman. "If the public is willing to pay for it, then it's economically feasible."

Strict state and local environmental laws, especially in Prince George's County, spurred interest in this kind of housing, Yost said.

The combination of state tree preservation and reforestation laws, smart-growth plans, buffering of sensitive lands and farm preservation laws all contribute to increasing the awareness of buyers and developers.

"I think it stems from the 'Save the Chesapeake' push," Scavo said of the laws. "But the laws by themselves wouldn't be effective. All the pieces have to come together."

One of those pieces, he said, was consumer disgust with the rapid pace of development and their interest in preserving the state's land.

"I think we have a more sophisticated buyer than [anyplace] else," more educated and wealthier, said Bob Kaufman, vice president of the Michael T. Rose Co.

Said Scavo: "I know the buyers we deal with look at more than the color or the tile or the bathroom. They look at the land."

Consumer interest made preserving surrounding land a necessity to sell a house, not an option. "It started snowballing," Kaufman said.

Developers say building these houses is not just about the environment -- it's also about improving their image.

There "is pressure on the industry to be more sensitive to the environment," said F. Hamer Campbell Jr., director of government affairs at the NAHB.

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