A sustainable community rises in Georgia (VIDEO)

| by Gary Wollenhaupt
A sustainable community rises in Georgia (VIDEO)

Rising from the red clay of central Georgia, the Serenbe eco-friendly development reflects the dreams of its founders and a new way to develop and live on the land.

The story starts with Steve and Marie Nygren, noted Atlanta restaurateurs, who in 1991 bought an old farm house, so their three young girls could grow up in the country. They restored the house and surrounding cottages and grew the enterprise into a thriving restaurant and country inn.

Then, Steve Nygren heard about nearby land being sold to developers. Fearing the famous Atlanta sprawl would spoil his country getaway, he quickly bought some adjacent land to corral the development. Realizing he couldn’t buy enough on his own to make a difference, he began meeting with other landowners, which included pro-development land speculators and anti-development family farmers, as well as county and state officials, to develop a new way of looking at land use.

The result was a new city, a set of innovative building and zoning codes, and a 1,000-acre sustainable development called Serenbe that blends a small-town community feel with high-tech design and building techniques.

Based on the model of English villages, homes in Serenbe line a series of U-shaped winding roads, known as omegas after the letter in the Greek alphabet. Housing is a mix of single-family detached, cottages, town homes, and live-work sections that include commercial and residential space. A network of walking trails connects the different sections, which are separated by forest buffer zones. Common areas include the Farmer’s Market and playscapes for children. A Montessori school serves young children, and a charter school is under development for elementary students.

Every one of the 1,000 or so homes that will eventually fill the development will be EarthCraft Certified, and some buildings, such as the Blue-Eyed Daisy Bake Shop, are LEED Certified. Other green building techniques include low-impact, storm-water management and community geothermal heating in some sections. An organic farm supplies fresh vegetables to residents and local restaurants. Every house recycles its trash and compostable material is sent to the farm to make organic compost to renew the soil. Homes in Serenbe range from $275,000 to around $1 million.

Creating a city

Transfer Development Rights

A developer has to buy transfer development rights from a preserved plot of land in order to win the right build on land designated for development. That way the surrounding land is preserved from development. That land will stay farms and forests to be appreciated by the community and preserving family farms in the area.

Today, Serenbe is a neighborhood that’s part of the new city of Chattahoochee Hills, Ga., southwest of Atlanta.

Incorporated in 2007, the city of Chattahoochee Hills encompasses 33,000 acres overall, covered by unique zoning requirements. The city is part of a larger four-county area designated as the Chattahoochee Hill Country. The acreage was the largest undisturbed land mass near a major airport in the United States, and a prime target for traditional suburban development.
Nygren and community members talked with local governments to establish new zoning regulations to stymie traditional developments. But after failed attempts to get the local county to enforce zoning codes and to be annexed into a neighboring city, forming a new city seemed like the best option.

The centerpiece of the new city is the emphasis on conservation and preservation of the land. That translates to high-density development with mixed-use planning. That means small home lots, attached housing, and retail and commercial space mixed in with the residential.

Working with the major landowners, Nygren and the community developed a plan that put three dense developments on the land of the major landowners, representing about 30 percent of the total acreage. The rest of the undeveloped land would be preserved for transfer development rights.

“We are living tighter here but the preserved land we’re saving is an immediate access and advantage to the residents,” Nygren said.

The goal is to be kind to the environment and create a sense of community. Nygren noted studies that reveal typical suburban development disrupts about 70 percent of the land. The goal for Chattahoochee Hills is to disrupt only 30 percent of the land for building, leaving the rest in its current state.

Planning experts studied the impact on the land of high-density preservation approach compared to traditional suburban developments. The Serenbe neighborhood is covered by the zoning laws which also apply to any other development in Chattahoochee Hills.

“If we followed same old patterns, they determined we could disturb 80 percent of the land and it would yield 30,000 houses [in Chattahoochee Hills],” Nygren said. “The plan the community came up with demonstrates we will disturb less than 30 percent of the land and we can get 38,000 houses in. We can have 20 percent more houses and the infrastructure will be about 40 percent of it would have been.”

Tom Reed, an early Serenbe resident, was one of the volunteers who helped launch the city. In fact, the day he and his family moved into their home, they were drafted to help with the petition drive to allow citizens to vote on becoming a city. He says the zoning regulations are critical to maintaining the character of the area.

“Here we have 33,000 acres under the same zoning and the zoning requires this kind of development,” he said. “This will ensure that Serenbe will not be that diamond in a sea of coal.”

Conservation and preservation

During his battle to save the land, Nygren got acquainted with Rawson Haverty, an executive with Haverty Furniture stores and a green-building advocate who became a partner in Serenbe. Based on his research of real estate markets for his company, Haverty knew the building boom was unsustainable. With an aging population, rising energy prices and lower birth rates, it was plain to Haverty that high-density, multi-use, multigenerational development was the wave of the future. The vast developments of suburban tract homes based on the availability of cheap gas were going to go the way of the dinosaurs.

One of the triumphs of the zoning allowed in Chattahoochee Hills and Serenbe is mixed use. In other words, commercial and residential properties are allowed to be in close proximity. That helps create more dense development, allowing for land to be preserved while still supporting the same population. Under old zoning regulations, such development was strictly prohibited.

“The only way to accomplish that goal is to have mixed-use development,” Haverty said. “You have to create spaces where you can live, work and play in the same place.”

The goal is to create a sense of community by giving residents ways to shop and work without the need to drive.

“Serenbe tried to create a place where more and more of our residents can live work play and make a lifestyle choice that really is about community and the integration of those key things that are near and dear to us: education, safety, health, security, arts culture, environmental stewardship, food, agriculture and all the things we know intuitively are inspiring to our residents,” Haverty said.

(Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories exploring sustainable development by looking at the Serenbe neighborhood.)

Read more about Serenbe:

Sustainable design leads to a sense of community in Serenbe

Video: Serenbe thrives on sustainable land development and agriculture

Topics: Going Green, Sustainable Communities, Trends / Statistics

Gary Wollenhaupt

Gary Wollenhaupt is an experienced writer and editor, with a background as a daily newspaper reporter as well as corporate and agency public relations and marketing. He is constantly looking for affordable green upgrades to make to his home in eastern Kentucky.

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