June 28, 2007

Blending a new community into the environment

  • Developers in Sequim are using eco-sensitive planning to help residents interact better with nature and their neighbors.
    Special to the Journal

    Photos courtesy of Solana
    Solana’s single-family courtyard homes are clustered to maintain nature views and enhance the development’s communal feel. Landscaped areas serve as gathering spaces.

    There’s increasing demand among Puget Sound-area residents to live in communities that provide opportunities to interact seamlessly with both their neighbors and natural surroundings. This is especially true in some of the Northwest’s more-rural communities, where the concept of higher-density, environmentally responsible living has recently taken on new meaning.

    To meet this challenge, many of the region’s real estate developers are creating complex land plans that offer residents easy access to recreational-based outdoor activities without sacrificing everything they love about connecting with fellow homeowners.

    Embracing natural assets

    In Sequim, for example, land planners recently created a master-planned community on a sensitive, mountainous site that overlooks the Straight of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains. Many people relocate to this area for its striking natural beauty and rich recreational attributes. Second and retirement home- buyers in Sequim want full, active lifestyles, but they also demand many of the conveniences of in-city living.

    In order to achieve this balance, planners used a clustering approach to integrate 130 craftsman-style “courtyard” homes into a 140-acre parcel. The community, called Solana, includes 85 larger estate lots on the site’s steeper hillside adjacent to Bell Hill, as well as 100 units of planned multifamily or senior housing and a 6-acre commercial village.

    The community swimming pool uses saline instead of chlorine for filtration.

    Clustered communities typically consist of detached, single-family homes, each set on a downsized lot in groups of several residences that comprise a single neighborhood or village. In traditional or dispersed developments, houses and parcels are spread more evenly throughout the total developed area, consuming much of the natural landscape. The clustering land-planning strategy promotes greater harmony with the surrounding natural area and better preserves open space and critical wildlife-habitat areas.

    In Sequim, the clustering plan enabled some 50 percent of the property to be preserved. The remaining generous swaths of open green space are easily visible from every home in the community. Clustering also allowed planners to address a topographically challenging parcel and keep residents from having direct sight lines into each other’s homes.

    The clustering and open-space set-asides allowed planners to give many of the homes water and mountain views. Within each residential cluster, there are eight to 10 maintenance-free “courtyard” homes that surround a communal area of the neighborhood. These landscaped spaces are designed as residential gathering spaces that have been strategically positioned to obstruct home-to-home views for each neighborhood resident.

    Landscaping is central

    As part of the overall land plan, much of the site has been left in its natural state of thriving fields of native grasses, wild flowers and other plant species common to the area. Lavender was a predominant choice in the landscaping given its abundance in Sequim. Birch and pine trees were also selected, as were heather, daylilies and rock rose for their limited water and trimming requirements and compatibility to the unique (sunny) climate and soil conditions of Sequim. And given their inherent hardiness, these plants establish areas for residents to stroll together and explore, or to sit and enjoy the outdoors.

    The community putting green is made of artificial grass, which never needs watering, mowing or chemical maintenance.

    Lighting was also a significant factor in the overall strategic land-use plan. All of the street lighting has been accomplished through two special kinds of 42-inch bollard lights, one of which was designed specifically for use in the courtyards. These light sources avoid a “light-curtain” effect that standard street lamps tend to create and block out night views, and they generate a low-impact green pattern that’s more in keeping with the community’s eco-sensitive philosophy.

    Because Sequim is part of a natural-wildlife preserve, it was a challenge to plan Solana around the various environmental needs. Designed into the site is a 300-foot natural greenbelt that serves as a wildlife corridor, one of several efforts supported by the local Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and the state Department of Fish and Game.

    The property also has a comprehensive trail system that weaves throughout the community and connects walkers and bikers to the John Wayne Marina, which offers overnight moorage and a public boat ramp. The Olympic Discovery Trail, a 25-mile path that meanders through woods, valleys and pastures in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains, is also accessible from the community’s trail system.

    Right-sizing amenities

    Most everyone recognizes the benefits of being environmentally responsible or building green — lower operating costs for residents, increased comfort, higher perceived value, reduced urban sprawl and protection of the natural environment. At Solana, these factors were central to creating amenities as part of the overall land-use planning effort. It was also important that these amenities were developed within the appropriate scale of the community.

    To accomplish this, planners spent a significant amount of time studying the neighboring Sequim communities to better understand how they both physically and visually interacted with the environment. It was critical to develop a community that not only fit into Sequim’s unique outdoor-oriented environment, but to also provide eco-friendly amenity attributes that homeowners want.

    Planners designed and installed a swimming pool that uses a salt-water filtering system that avoids the use of harsh chemicals and produces fresher, softer water without the typical chlorine odor and bleaching effect. The pool uses a light saline solution that’s consistent with human tears.

    Another eco-friendly feature is an artificial-turf putting green designed to look and feel like real grass but requires no water, fertilizers, herbicides or insecticides. The putting green also never needs to be cut, thus reducing maintenance costs and lessening its overall impact on the environment. Planners will also pursue some level of “green” certification for the community’s single-family homes and overall site plan.

    Jerrold K. Hann, AICP, and Dirk Jongejan are members of the Solana planning team. Hann is a principal at Land Strategies, a Clinton-based firm that consults on land-planning and other development issues. Jongejan, a fellow with the American Society of Landscape Architects, was a founder of Bellevue-based landscape-consulting firm JGM Landscape Architects and now works as an independent consultant.

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