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Putting Nature First PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 12 October 2004 18:00
Ken Hoffman stands in a muddy bean field near Milan, showing off the 72 acres of land that he plans to turn into a housing development called The Conservancy. To the north is a grove. “All the trees will remain,” Hoffman said, referring to the wooded area.

To understand how radical the concept of retaining trees is, drive through virtually any new housing development less than 10 years old. Aside from the density of housing, the dominant characteristic of these subdivisions is their lack of shade; all the trees were planted when the houses were built, so they’re young and short. The Conservancy is trying to be different. “I want every possible natural feature of this property saved,” Hoffman said.

Roughly 40 acres of The Conservancy are tillable, Hoffman said, while the remaining 32 are trees. Aside from 14 acres on which Hoffman is going to build a lake, nearly all those trees will be integrated into the development, which will feature 107 housing lots between a third of an acre and half an acre. In a typical suburban development of this size, one could expect to see as many as 288 homes, Hoffman said.

The Conservancy will be guided by nine principles, including “to preserve, protect, and enhance,” “to promote a healthy lifestyle,” and “to promote a model development.” (For the full list of principles, visit http://www.conservancyneighborhood.com.) Many of these goals can already been seen in the project’s initial plans, and others will manifest themselves in covenants that will govern land use and architecture.

Fundamentally, Hoffman wants to be known as “a developer who put nature first, before homes.” His aims for the $50-million to $60-million project are noble, but he’s also a rookie developer. As he said, “This is my first go-round.”

There are other reasons The Conservancy will be – and should be – watched closely. Even though this development mirrors efforts elsewhere in the country – and even a city-led project across the river in Davenport – Hoffman’s initiative will show whether this type of development is possible and profitable in the Quad Cities.

“Usually the most important thing is the bottom line,” said Joel Brunsvold, director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and a former state legislator from the Quad Cities, at the press conference announcing The Conservancy. Brunsvold said this type of development is something that “we as the Department of Natural Resources have promoted for years.”

Hoffman said that profit is certainly one motivation, but in combination with other goals. “You can do a development within nature, with lower density, and still make a decent amount of money,” he said.

The Conservancy is also one sign that Milan is the community to watch on the Illinois side of the river when it comes to residential development. Including Hoffman’s development, at least five residential projects are in the works, according to the village’s mayor, with the possibility of bringing at least 600 new homes into the small village.

Nature Over Neighborhood

This low-density, back-to-nature ethos was pioneered more than a decade ago by developments such as Prairie Crossing, a 677-acre project in the Chicago suburb of Grayslake, Illinois. Prairie Crossing was founded in 1992, and 350 of its acres are legally protected from development. It now has 359 home sites. Prairie Crossing (http://www.prairiecrossing.com) served as an inspiration for The Conservancy, as well as another Quad Cities development: the City of Davenport’s Prairie Heights at 53rd Street and Eastern Avenue. (See “‘New Urbanism’ Takes Center Stage in Prairie Heights,” River Cities’ Reader Issue 430, June 18, 2003.)

But there are key differences between the local efforts. First, Davenport’s 630-acre project is being spearheaded by the city – not a private developer – as a demonstration that these neighborhood-based, environment-friendly developments are feasible. “We can serve as a model,” said Davenport City Administrator Craig Malin. Roughly 410 acres of the project area are privately owned, with the remainder held by the city. Of the city’s portion of the land, 126 acres will be reserved for an open-space park.

Second, in Davenport’s case, the open-space set-aside will not necessarily be permanently dedicated to natural habitat. According to Malin, about one-third of the 126 acres will be an “active park space,” and 20 percent will be a water feature. The city will “hold … through native restoration” the remainder – somewhere in the neighborhood of 55 acres. In other words, the initial natural area could be developed eventually for active recreation. In general terms, The Conservancy focuses more on nature, while Prairie Heights stresses neighborhood.

Third, Davenport’s project doesn’t yet have a developer. Only one responded to the city’s request for qualification, and another expressed interest after the deadline. Malin said the city is considering revising its request. At this point, he said, the city is targeting 2006 for residency.

Malin noted that because of its large scale, “it would be difficult to replicate Prairie Crossing,” with components including an organic farm and a charter school.

But Prairie Heights and The Conservancy represent local efforts to mimic what has happened in Prairie Crossing and other communities around the country. And unlike the situation in Davenport, a single, private developer has crafted the vision and assumed the risk for what’s happening near Milan.

The key difference between Prairie Heights and The Conservancy is that, if successful, the latter will serve as proof that the model can work without significant government assistance or guidance.

“Spending a Little More Money”

At a September 30 press conference announcing The Conservancy, Hoffman – who opened the Earthworks Design landscaping company in 1996 – recalled his inspiration for the development: seeing a gorgeous natural area with rolling hills, grasses, ravines, trees, and wildlife bulldozed for a cookie-cutter development.

In December, he purchased the land that would become The Conservancy, about two miles southeast of the Milan Beltway off Knoxville Road at County KK.

The goal isn’t just combining housing with natural settings. Hoffman hopes to “not only protect but enhance” the area by removing dead and diseased trees, adding evergreens, and re-introducing food sources for wildlife. He added that the lake should draw wildlife back to the area, as well.

There’s also an effort to foster a sense of community. Architectural guidelines will “strongly encourage” a front porch, while the development will feature a community center with social area, fitness center, pool, and playground. Other outdoor gathering spots – such as fireplaces – will also be included. Hoffman said he hopes the development fosters “a lifestyle based on spending more quality time with family and friends.”

The Conservancy will undoubtedly be an upscale development. Houses (with lots included) are expected to start in the neighborhood of $350,000, with lots starting at $69,000. Hoffman said that he expects The Conservancy to require homes to be at least 2,000 square feet, and that the development would also provide a square-footage ceiling for house size.

“People now are spending a little more money to be in-tune with nature,” Brunsvold said.

Hoffman hopes to create “a large estate feel … without them [residents] having to purchase, maintain, or pay taxes on a large lot.”

Two or three spec houses should be started this fall, Hoffman said, and he hopes to sell the development’s lots over the next two years.

Although the principles for The Conservancy are in place, the covenants have not yet been drafted. Hoffman knows they can’t touch on every possible issue – he said he doesn’t want “a Bible full of laws” – yet some areas are certain to be addressed, including requiring energy-efficient building materials, dictating house styles, and setting basic rules for designs. “What I want to do is set minimum standards,” Hoffman said. “To uphold the integrity of the homes, we have to have certain limitations.”

Almost certain to be in the covenants are that houses must have rear- or side-load garages, front porches, and at least a third of the front covered with stone or brick.

On the environmental front, the covenants will not require people to have prairie grasses or wildflowers on their properties, Hoffman said. However, property owners will need board approval for any change that might have an environmental impact, such as cutting down a tree. Hoffman said the development is committed to striking a balance “between quality residential life and the environment.”

“At Some Point This Would Be Developed”

In developing a piece of rural farmland for expensive housing, Hoffman opens up The Conservancy to complaints that its environmental claims aren’t genuine, that it’s contributing to urban sprawl.

“This is in their [Milan’s] development corridor,” Hoffman countered. “At some point this would be developed. I don’t consider this urban sprawl at all.”

At the press conference, he added that The Conservancy will be a model for rural development. “This is how housing developments should be designed,” he said.

Indeed, Milan is poised for tremendous growth. Duane Dawson, mayor of the Village of Milan, said the Village has five housing developments in the works near its borders, all of which it plans to annex. With The Conservancy, The Settlement at Lake Forest (250 units near Oak Grove), Case Creek (more than 100 housing units near both Moline and Milan), and two other 100-plus-unit developments, the Village of Milan could add between 600 and 800 households in just the next few years. That type of growth would bring several thousand people to the village’s current population of roughly 5,000, Dawson said.

Milan plans to spend $1 million to extend sewer and water lines to The Conservancy, which would serve as an endpoint to development south of the village. Essentially, that would make three 80-acre parcels between the village’s current boundary and The Conservancy ripe for development – and thus fuel even more growth. Milan expects to annex The Conservancy this spring.

“We’re doing well,” Dawson said. “Things are really picking up out here.”

Construction of the Rock River bridge – due to be completed in 2006 – will make Milan even more attractive, adding another access point to the Quad Cities.

The city is developing a master plan for the village and expects to complete it by next spring. Dawson said the goal is to avoid the problems Davenport has experienced on 53rd Street. Growth is important, he said, and “hopefully, we’re going to do it correctly.”

That’s what Hoffman is shooting for, as well.
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