Developing for Good

***As appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune, February 27, 2010 I have been watching from afar the controversy surrounding the eventual use of Rancho Guejito, outside of San Diego. As a former Southern California resident, I know firsthand the passions that are stirred when vacant land is brought to the forefront of discussions on issues of growth, image and the environment. With Rancho Guejito, these passions are proportionate to the thirty-six square mile property; in other words, the passions are extreme, the ramifications enormous.

But, the debate seems increasingly to center on an either-or scenario – either you preserve the land in its entirety as a state park or preserve, or you allow unfettered development to consume the unique environment contained within the property lines of Rancho Guejito. The potential solution, however, rests not in an either-or battle, but rather by advancing conservation of the natural landscape by accommodating limited development. Simply put, the model works, as evidenced by two large-scale, still-evolving land developments: a 20,000-acre Northern California land preserve of rolling hills and an 18,000-acre barrier island in South Carolina.

Both projects show the ability of development to effectuate the long-term preservation and management of important land holdings characterized first and foremost by natural beauty. In South Carolina, Palmetto Bluff places home sites, a village center, amenity buildings, and a small inn all within the larger realm of a coastal low country environment surrounded by rivers and approximately 11,000 acres of wetlands buffers, managed forests, conservation easements and dedicated open space. And, at Palmetto Bluff, ruins of early plantation houses were embraced, rather than demolished, to create instant narrative and immediate historical context. Palmetto Bluff is a “place,” not a project; a coastal village within a vast protected natural landscape. At Rancho Guejito, the same can hold true, creating place through the natural environment and through existing features, such as the Native American cultural remnants on the site.

In Northern California, the 20,000-acre Santa Lucia Preserve set the standard for conservation-based development when it eschewed plans for thousands of production homes in favor of 280 private homesites, an equestrian ranch center, other amenities, and a permanent land trust. The trademarked “community preserve” was endowed by the development of the homesites to permanently conserve 18,000 acres of coastal landscape. The long-term development plan succeeded in a highly anti-development community environment. Higher value was placed on the homesites due to their location within the larger preserve. As a result, the community had its landscape preserved as part, rather than in spite, of a viable development plan.

While the land conservation community is not motivated by profits, these community preserves demonstrate that limited development can be the economic engine that sustains the preservation of natural resources. The key is incorporating human settlement as an integral part of a healthy rural ecosystem. These solutions work; they are profitable, while at the same time they protect and preserve the integrity of the land.

New projects do not get built unless there is a strong belief that they will be profitable. Yes, there are exceptions, such as affordable housing programs, but those are run with massive public subsidies funded by tax dollars. But, in an age of significantly depleted municipal budgets, there is little realistic belief that a governmental organization will have the resources and wherewithal to sustain an additional maintenance expense. Especially in California, where state parks are facing severe budget cuts and, in some cases, closing altogether, it is unrealistic to believe that a new thirty-six square mile park will thrive.

For Rancho Guejito, decreasing the number of residential units and stepping back from a commodity-based production process has multi-faceted benefits. By making it about the “place,” and respecting history, culture, tradition and the natural setting, the potential exists to reduce risks by shortening construction (and approvals) timelines, allowing greater flexibility through phasing to adjust to changing market demands, and creating unique products and environments tied to the qualities of the land; after all, the resulting community functions and appears more like a village inside a national park, than it does suburban sprawl. This drives value.

In all, responsible development proceeds based on a belief that a property’s intrinsic value, to both developers and preservationists, lies in its natural beauty, vastness and rich landscape. The key to compromise over the future of Rancho Guejito lays, as paradoxical as it may sound, in the fact that it is possible for opposing sides to have the same viewpoint. The long-term vision needs to be considered in tandem with a long-term management and stewardship plan, especially in an era of fiscal constraints, especially in California. Limited sensitive and contextual development actually benefits the community at-large by ensuring the long-term viability of conserved land.