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February 2014

Edible Backyards

Yielding Sales for Developers

By NWREporter

February 2014

Subdivisions may conjure up thoughts of strip malls, sprawl and snarled traffic. Now, think edible backyards.

Developers around the country are luring buyers with amenities centered on concepts known as "development-supported agriculture," (DSA), "conservation communities," or "agriburbia®". As founders of the latter term are fond of explaining, "Home is where the farm is."

Instead strip malls, these ag-oriented developments are appealing to buyers with promises of sustainability, self-sufficiency, and farm-to-table products. Landscapes are edible, with community gardens, orchards and livestock among the common elements in the package.

DSAs are akin to the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement, but have more ambitious goals. CSAs strive to forge business relationships between consumers and farmers. DSAs focus on establishing sustainable models of land use with an urban-rural interface that preserves farming cultures, agricultural land, and community-based food security. DSAs also try to cultivate new generations of farmers through farm incubator programs.
An executive with the Urban Land Institute estimates more than 200 developments with an agricultural twist currently exist around the U.S. Among pioneers of the movement are Matthew "Quint" Redmond and his wife, Jenny. They coined the term "agriburbia" in 2006.

Agriburbia® is an innovative and growing design movement that integrates aspects of agrarianism with land development. Its founders say the concept incorporates characteristics of New Urbanism, modernism and historic preservation, and other environmentally sustainable principles of real estate development.

Moreover, proponents of agriburbia and other development-supported agriculture believe such projects return both social and economic benefits. Setting aside plots for agriculture uses is not just the right thing to do, Redmond suggests. "It's profitable." He predicts homeowners and developers will realize that food-production revenue never declines, unlike traditional development models where revenue stops flowing once all the homes are sold.

Six policies and principles are promoted as part of Agriburbia (see box).

Quint Redmond, who holds degrees in geology, urban and regional planning, and landscape architecture, is also co-founder of TSR Group, a design firm in Golden, Colo. He envisions a future where the nation's 31 million acres of lawn are converted to food production. In his world, golf course greens are redefined with herbs and sand traps become "kale traps." He imagines "retirement homes engulfed by farms and office buildings where workers escape cubicles on farming breaks."

One of his firm's projects is Platte River Village, a 640-acre parcel annexed in the Town of Milliken, near Denver, Colorado. The mixed use development includes 980 living spaces surrounded by more than a hundred drip-irrigated backyard farms.

Platte River VillageLiving spaces at Plattte River Village range from multi-family townhomes to horse lots. Amenities include 24 acres of mixed-use neighborhood commercial, a fire station, and set-asides for future needs, including a community park with playing fields. The farms are expected to feed local residents and supply restaurants. Income from these sources will help pay for community upkeep.

Another development, also in Colorado, will support 1,000 households. Called Bucking Horse, it encompasses 240 acres encircling an historic barn, farmhouse, shed, saddle shop and chicken coop. When rehabbed and re-purposed, these structures will be known as Jessup Farm Artisan Village, where a farm-to-fork restaurant, wine maker, coffee roaster and yoga studio will be housed.

When built out, Bucking Horse will include single family homes, townhouses, condos and apartments, along with a 3.6 acre CSA (community-supported agriculture) farm, farmers market and educational center where homeowners can take classes on canning and other subjects.

BuckinghorseDevelopers expect to hire a farmer for the food-centric community. A subsidy from the homeowners' association will likely support a small livestock operation.

Developers of ag-oriented projects are encountering some obstacles, with restrictive zoning codes being a potential impediment. In some municipalities, rules require separation between residential and agricultural land uses. Some planners are revisiting such regulations to ease restrictions so uses can be combined.

Bucking Horse's developer says new single-family lots "were snatched up within days of going on the market." Values are rising. Prices on existing homes have jumped 25 percent since construction of the agricultural amenities began, and new lots are fetching 20-to-25 percent more than lots at nearby neighborhoods.

Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow with the Urban Land Institute, agrees such land uses can yield financial rewards. "Ample evidence exists that shows homebuyers will pay premium prices to live next to nature, green space, and even certain types of agriculture," he wrote in a 2010 report for Urban Land magazine.

In the same report, McMahon cited research by Jeffrey Milder of Cornell University and Brad Gentry of Yale University. Upon analyzing thousands of conservation communities, they found such projects not only preserve open space, but "also advance other community needs, such as affordable housing, outdoor recreation, local food production, and opportunities for environmental education."

If the capacity crowd at a recent ULI meeting is any indication, food is becoming an increasingly important amenity for developers. At one session, panelists offered compelling examples of how "the food revolution" functions as a real estate amenity, a community builder and a project differentiator.

Panelist Brent Herrington of DMB Associates (a diversified real estate company based in Arizona) and president of Kukuiula Development Company, discussed the role of agriculture in some of DMB's projects. With 1,000 acres, Kukui'ula, on the island of Kauai in Hawaii, boasts many typical resort amenities, including a golf course, a high-end clubhouse and spa, and trails. One distinguishing feature is its 10-acre community farm (with a small staff) situated next to a 22-acre lake.

Photo Courtesy Kukui'ulaGarden plots are also available to community members who wish to garden, and members may volunteer at the upcountry farm where myriad fruits and vegetables are grown. Residents are welcome to gather produce for their own consumption (subject, of course, to "farm etiquette").

Marketers promote the farm and garden amenities at Kukui'ula as "a unique opportunity to grow skills, taste great food at its freshest, and cultivate an appreciation for the simple pleasures of sowing, growing and harvesting." While the array of produce is impressive, developers say what's even more impressive is the big impact on marketing this relatively low-cost amenity (roughly $1 million), has had on sales, especially when compared to high-cost amenities like the golf course, clubhouse, and spa (roughly $100 million).

McMahon, author of a ULI book titled Conservation Communities: Creating Value with Nature,
Open Space, and Agriculture, believes "For as long as people have lived in cities, many have dreamed of returning to the land." No matter what form a conservation community takes - whether forests, farms, ranchland or other - McMahon says "Conservation communities prove that developers can focus on nature and still make a profit."

Agriburbia Principles

  • Agricultural Production: No loss of agricultural value or revenue ("Green Fields" development), or production of dietary requirements of the project or equivalent cash from sales crops, or combination thereof.
  • Locally Grown Food: Production of a significant portion (30 to 50%) of dietary requirements grown within or in the immediate surrounding area of the community
  • Conserves and Promotes Natural Resources: Appropriate and efficient use of natural resources to provide housing, transportation, recreation and fresh food through creative, harmonious land planning and landscape architecture for the community. This includes use of alternative energy sources as well as land and water.
  • Self Sufficiency: Provide a commercially viable opportunity for enhanced self- sufficiency for community residents, tenants, and guests.
  • Sustainable Energy Practices: Integrate solar and geothermal technology to provide sustainable energy sources for the community.
  • Financing: Incorporate established entities (Metropolitan Districts, HOAs) to finance both traditional infrastructure (streets, water, sewer) and environmentally friendly agricultural infrastructure (drip irrigation).

Photos courtesy Kukui'ula.