More North Carolina Developers Want Trees Left Alone

Tue August 29, 2006 - Southeast Edition
Construction Equipment Guide

WILMINGTON, NC (AP) Andy Wood observes natural areas of long leaf pines, Venus flytraps and native songbirds with a subjective eye, knowing that at least some of the land he’s surveying will be dotted with homes.

As an ecological consultant, he makes no bones about the fact that things don’t always turn out how he hopes when he’s hired by a developer to identify natural assets on property to be developed.

Developers may be driven to have habitats on their land identified for a number of reasons. Consumer demand is some of the push behind what Wood said is a growing trend in the development community to conserve nature around new homes.

Another factor, officials said, is that development in urban areas such as Wilmington forces a developer to be more creative to meet government regulations such as stormwater and wetlands preservation. And, other developers simply want to leave behind a neighborhood that will make their grandchildren proud.

Thinking about development in different ways has spawned something called “new urbanism,” in which homes are built in clusters, creating an atmosphere of privacy without isolation. And, clustered housing allows more room to preserve communal open space.

In the 15 years Wood has offered his services, he’s noticed that more developers want to know what’s living on the land where they plan to build. This gives him the opportunity to educate builders. More than 800 species of plants thrive in southeastern North Carolina, where an average of 52 in. of rain falls annually. He also advised that clear-cutting means literally removing existing shrubs and trees worth tens of thousands of dollars. That’s money a developer could save in landscaping, he said.

“When I’m brought in, it’s because the developer is not afraid to do something above and beyond what is required by the state or the federal government. They’re willing to be creative,” Wood said.

“Do I get everything saved?” he said. “Absolutely not.

“In some cases I may have an unenviable role of saying, ’This is a really neat piece of woods right here,’ but I understand the developer wants to develop this property,” he said. “I often tell the customer things they don’t want to hear. I’m not telling people what to do. I’m offering ideas for people to think about.”

One example of a subdivision where green space is used as a neighborhood asset is the Village of Woodsong in Shallotte. Woodsong is a throwback to the neighborhood concept where homes have front porches and sidewalks provide walking space. Yards are peppered with mature trees.

Beyond the homes and roadways are natural areas with parks, a constructed wetland water-garden, nature trails and a sanctuary of a preserved wetland forest.

When developer and Shallotte native Buddy Milliken decided to create Woodsong, he called on Wood to do an audit of the flora and fauna on the property.

“There were significant areas that I really wanted to know how to design with and around,” Milliken said. “To me, you create a living neighborhood for people and you market what you have.”

Developers are attuned to what consumers want in the housing market, he said. And, more frequently he’s seeing developers looking to weave man-made with nature.

“I would say there’s an emerging trend among consumers and, therefore developers, that these habitats do enhance the quality of living,” he said.

Steve Shuttleworth, vice president of Colorado Coastal Development in Wilmington, said his sources told him that, nationally, top amenities in residential development are bike and walking trails. The more than 2,000-acre piece of land his group — Sidbury Development in Scotts Hill — is developing will include a walking trail integrated with natural ponds.

Shuttleworth hired Wood to do a habitat assessment on the land with the idea of enhancing the development by using natural resources.

“Andy and a few other guys are kind of a unique subsection of the industry,” Shuttleworth said. “What he’s really helping us come up with is conservation, minimization and restoration. It is a balancing act. We think that’s good, healthy dialogue.”

Shuttleworth’s development group has completed four projects in North Carolina and is working on six more. Sidbury is the first project in this state where he’s used an environmental consultant. One reason for that, Shuttleworth said, is because of the sheer size of the project, which will include more than 4,000 residential units. The development will offer a variety of lot sizes ranging from large lots to clustered housing.

Wood is working on an education plan for Sidbury’s contractors and will conduct seminars before construction, Shuttleworth said.

Shuttleworth hired Wood at the recommendation of Pender County Planning Director Frank Palmer.

Palmer said he asks developers to work with people like Wood, especially if the land planned for development included environmentally sensitive areas.

“There is an advantage both for developers and conservationists to have it both ways,” Palmer said.

In Brunswick County, Planning Director Leslie Bell said his department encourages developers to do tree surveys. The county’s working on a unified development ordinance that proposes a heritage tree program to preserve medium and large trees and conservation by design.

State legislators have further tightened stormwater management by shrinking buildable surfaces. Development in coastal counties, including New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender, must meet specific stormwater requirements. One way some developers are meeting those requirements is by building collection systems that filter to man-made wetlands.

In Wilmington, developers have to do a site inventory, which requires them to have a number of things like wetlands, soil types, existing drainage features and forested areas evaluated.

“Once they’re identified then they’re planned around,” said Phil Prete, city planner. “We’re getting to where we’re applying that better, I think. It’s an intuitive process.

“We are seeing, not routinely, some projects come in being more creative and being more in tune with the natural constraints on the site,” Prete said.

Then, there’s the local economy and the baby boomer factor.

“The higher end developments are definitely those that have the larger trees on site,” said Rob Moul, president and environmental consultant of Land Management Group in Wilmington.

Brian Capo, an urban forestry agent in New Hanover County, agreed.

“It’s easier to work on a site without trees,” he said. “Generally, the trees in the early stages aren’t part of what they’re looking at. But now developers are seeing that they can sell the house for a higher price if they leave the trees.”

And, the more savvy the consumer is the more a developer will listen and start to incorporate the consumer’s requests, Moul said. He started seeing developers seek the services of conservationists when land prices reached the more than $10,000 an acre range.

“People who are retiring here and moving to this area are enjoying the fact that we have a golden goose here,” Wood said of the natural habitats in Southeastern North Carolina. “There is a demand for it. I don’t care if it’s marketing as long as the final product is something we can, as a community, be proud of. This is the only time to build this place with as much sensitivity for the land that we can incorporate.”

And, he hoped more and more developers will go beyond meeting the minimum regulations to conserve natural areas.

“I am cautiously optimistic,” he said. “I think that’s going to happen.”