Trees will start falling this week to make way for South River Colony, the 900-home community that will become South County's biggest residential and commercial development.

But instead of bulldozers, loggers with chain saws will take down a few hundred acres of trees to make way for the first houses on the 1,400-acre site.

Houston-based Friendswood Development Co. chose to remove trees one by one to minimize the number of trees lost and keep heavy equipment from disturbing environmentally sensitive land.

The company, which worked closely with nearby community groups to overcome long-standing opposition to major developments in South County, mailed 6,000 letters last week informing residents ground-clearing would begin.

"Typically, a bulldozer just goes in and starts mowing down trees, and people get scared," said Randy L. Raudabaugh, Friendswood's Maryland manager.

"Well, we're trying to be tree-huggers, too, and do things in a very careful way. And we're trying to be honest and open with people to get the facts out, instead of rumors and misinformation."

Raudabaugh said about 75 residents had called with questions about the development and the ground-clearing, but that none complained.

Loggers will get the wood from the trees free in exchange for removing them, Raudabaugh said. The wood will be turned into paper pulp or timber, he said.

A county zoning officer approved land-use changes last year for the community, near Routes 2 and 214.

The plans won widespread support among residents whose fierce opposition to any large-scale development in South County quashed an 1,800-home versionof the community, proposed by developer Michael T. Rose, three yearsearlier.

Rose, who sold Friendswood the property for $26 million in 1988, has been retained by the Texas company as consultant and developer for part of the site.

Friendswood has agreed to pay for newroads to ease congestion, restrict building to about 40 percent of the site, preserve 761 acres of forest, protect the environment and add a 20-acre park.

Covenants also keep stores, offices and town houses north of Route 214.

Within two years, construction is scheduled to be completed on 306 single-family homes south of Route 214, eachcosting $500,000 or more, along with an 18-hole championship golf course and clubhouse.

The entire project will take up to 10 years tocomplete. It will include 207 town houses, 200 homes designated for seniors and 187 condominiums. About 100 of the homes will be "affordable," costing about $100,000 each.

In addition to the homes, SouthRiver Colony will include 500,000 square feet of office and retail space, a county senior center and library, two recreation centers and nine miles of trails for hiking and biking.

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