When less becomes more

Developments conserve land to retain value and views

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Print this page by Nicole Anderson Ellis

In 1971 developers bought twin peaks along Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. One is now covered by a golf course, ski runs, and the 3,000 condos and single-family homes of Wintergreen Resort.
The second, Crawford Knob, remains green.  Wintergreen long planned to expand onto Crawford, but in 2008 an alternative fate was sealed.  Wintergreen preserved the wild summit with a binding conservation easement that prevents development, ever.

Not surprisingly, naturalists are pleased.  “Fourteen hundred acres of ancient forest?  This is as good as it gets,” says Doug Coleman, executive director of the Wintergreen Nature Foundation. 
But the decision cost roughly $15 million in development potential, according to John Coy, chairman of Wintergreen Partners Inc. So why do it?

Because beautiful views earn money, says Coy.  The verdant curve of Crawford Knob is a vital asset and an essential part of Wintergreen’s draw. 

Home buyers have always put a premium on setting.  Only recently, as Virginia’s green spaces recede, have developers added value through preservation of landscapes.  From Appalachian ridgelines to fertile farmlands to the Chesapeake Bay, developers across the commonwealth are investing in “conservation developments.” These projects boast fewer homes, smaller lots and preserved green spaces. Their success is rooted in the belief buyers will pay more to ensure views, privacy and peace: an average of 12 to 16 percent more per acre for developed lots in conservation subdivisions versus conventional lots, according to a 2006 study in the Urban Affairs Review, an academic journal exploring urban planning and economic development.

So less becomes more.  When Celebration Associates founded the 2,300-acre Homestead Preserve in Bath County, it limited density to 450 homes and put 935 acres in a conservation easement.  In exchange for sacrificing development rights, the company earned more than $8.7 million in state tax credits (Wintergreen got $3 million).  But these compensations are rare. 
“Generally, a developer doesn’t get tax credits for preserving land,” says Caren Schumacher, executive director of the Williamsburg Land Conservancy (WLC). “That’s not how the IRS tax code works.”  But there are other ways to protect open space.  Last spring the WLC hosted Preservation & Profit, a workshop on land protection tools. Celebration Associates partner Charles Adams told the assembled builders and developers of his most recent project, Bonduran Farm.

The 2,300-acre development in Albemarle County capitalizes on people’s desire to live amid farmland without buying — or maintaining — a farm.  Lots run from the high $200,000s upward past $1 million.  Residents share access to vast green space, including 200 acres of productive orchards and 16 miles of hiking trails.  A full 90 percent of the property is preserved through covenants with the homeowners association.  So residents don’t lose sleep fearing a subdivision will pop up next door. 

Across the mountains, in Rockbridge County, the Greenway development uses covenants to protect its 30 common acres.  Greenway offers modest rural living; each half-acre lot goes for $69,000 and opens on forest and pasture.  And Greenway pays no tax on that common land.  Developer Pat Foreman convinced the county that as the land can never be sold, it has no value. 

James City Coun­­­ty hasn’t waved any taxes on River’s Bend development but found a way to save the developer $1 million.  By right, 135 houses fit on the riverfront property.  Associated Developers Inc. sought just 35 home sites, each overlooking 200 protected acres.  To make the plan fiscally feasible, the county waved the required central water system, with the enthusiastic approval of the WLC and community groups.

Considering the time and money developers often spend pushing projects in unwelcoming communities, it must feel priceless to garner that level of support.

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