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


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."

As a teacher of forest conservation and site planning at Johns Hopkins University, Pais said he stunned his students, most of whom are consultants and engineers, when he argued that developers are receptive to retaining natural features even if they have to pay more.

"The consultants have bought the concept that they are destroying the environment," Pais said. "Why would you design a wetland pond if you think you're destroying the environment."

Daniel Rosen, a planner for the Maryland Office of Planning, has noticed that some developers have gone beyond the standards set by zoning regulations.

"It's better than the run-of-the-mill junk that we've gotten for the last 30 years," he said.

The industry is starting to preach the value of grafting developments with fragile environments. Magazines are featuring developments that save trees and resources. Rural communities also are taking stock of their bucolic characteristics and have gotten better at defending them, and homebuyers are demanding something other than grid communities.

When Scheidt started planning Paternal Gift, she sat at home with an aerial map of the farm and her son's Monopoly hotels. She didn't believe there was anyone who understood her goals. Howard County's zoning had provided for the property to be divided into lots of at least three acres, which, as far as she was concerned, would have ruined the farm.

"It was wasteful for our land and it didn't leave anything in the natural state," said Scheidt.

So she walked the land and marked the best vistas on her map with little Monopoly houses. She took college courses and presented her project before the Urban Land Institute panel, which gave her recommendations. She hired Fred Jarvis of LDR International Inc., a landscape architect firm in Columbia, and then took her case to the county, asking for zoning approval.

But even after the seminars in which experts offered suggestions, she still seemed to puzzle some engineers.

First, she wanted to create a typical country road with the natural bends hidden from sight. Then there was the matter of the English ha-ha. A ha-ha, she said, is a stone wall in a field that creates the illusion that the animals are not fenced in.

She hired Royal Barry Wills, a Boston architect, to design the barns with stone walls and lofts. She built a house for a caretaker and devised a business plan that would pay his salary from the boarding of horses, without imposing homeowners' fees.

Although the concept of communal ownership has been around for a long time, Scheidt believes she's the only developer that has made the open space pay for itself. Paternal Gift is expected to draw horse boarders, who will take advantage of the Schooly Mill Park, Howard County's equestrian park, next door.

Scheidt's efforts didn't go unnoticed. In 1997, Paternal Gift was named "Project of the Year" by the Home Builders Association of Maryland.

She points out the caretaker mowing a field, the horses roaming and marvels that each house will have its own distinct view of the farm. "It's the same as buying your own small farm," she said.

While Paternal Gift derived from Scheidt's home-grown convictions, Gaylord Brooks changed from a company hunkered down for a legal battle to developers who can discuss natural habitats, native plantings and resource surveys.

To appease their neighbors, it turned to Land Ethics, an environmental planning conservation company, which until then had never worked with a developer.

Land Ethics, formerly based in Anne Arundel County but now in Ann Arbor, Mich., suggested that instead of clustering 22 homes in a communal pocket in the middle of the 172-acre wooded tract on Wesley Chapel Woods, the houses should be tucked in the forest, a process known as finger printing. Roadways were made thinner, the tree canopy overhead was protected and the homes were set back farther off the road. As a result, only 6 percent of the forest is being disturbed.

While even the residents are satisfied with the plans for Wesley Chapel, the verdict is still out on Magers Landing.

"While it can be said that Magers Landing protects environmentally sensitive areas, it sticks out like a sore thumb from the stand point of the surrounding community," Holzer said.

Moore doesn't pretend to have quelled all the objections to his developments, but the project attempts to merge the developer's, environmentalists' and residents' concerns. Pais said Gaylord Brooks wasn't content to just set aside 55 acres as open space at Magers Landing, which lies a few miles beyond Monkton Road, but to use it as a marketing tool.

"The question was after this was all designed and the zoning was taken care of, how would the marketplace react to this type of development?" said Richard Moore. "It's been very positive."

Standing at the end of hiking trail on Magers Landing, Moore and his son, Thomas, a vice president of Gaylord Brooks Realty Co., were discussing horticulture like two foresters. A blue herring had just lifted off from the Gunpowder River as they explained the problem of cutting gaps in the woods, opening the way for troublesome underbrush. They hired Natural Concerns to selectively cut trees and do restoration planting. So far they've spent $100,000 on plantings. A 200-year-old white oak received preferential treatment as the road was rerouted around its root system.

Now they're talking about building a lean-to on the trail and providing nature manuals for new homeowners to help them care for their lots.

"If it's going to happen, I would want to be in control of it in my area and make sure it was going to be done the best way it could be done," Thomas Moore said.

For Scheidt, her project may even be more personal. She's planning to live in her development. But it's more than that. Paternal Gift is proof, she said, that developments don't have to look like a rash blotting the countryside.

She used her own resources -- in this case, her family's land -- to showcase her ideals. Now comes the moment of truth. "I need to show that the project can actually make a profit," she said, "or developers won't do it."

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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