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Silos vs. subdivisions

As more and more farmland is plowed under for housing developments, people wonder how to make room for both the cows and the kids.

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And in Marineon St. Croix, Minn., the focus of the Jackson Meadow development at the edge of the Twin Cities metro area is on natural landscapes and clumps of homes that resemble farmhouses. The houses face one another across public green space, access roads run behind, and more than 70 percent of the 173 acres are left open.

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The basic theme underlying the creation of these communities is conserving America's agricultural heritage.

Ranney is convinced that small organic farms hold great promise near cities. A study of the Chicago area found that the region consumes $60 million to $80 million of organic produce each year, but no more than 3 percent of it is locally produced.

Customers at Prairie Crossing's organic farm purchase memberships, which are really lines of credit of $200, $300, or $500 for use in buying fresh produce throughout the growing season.

Conventional, large-scale farming, with its big equipment and big debts, isn't suited to the urban edges, Ranney says, because the neighbors don't like it and it yields too little profit, given the land's development value.

"But it's a whole different ball game in organic," she says, pointing out the greater profit and jobs per acre and the potential for direct marketing to large numbers of nearby customers.

And, oh yes, it's more human scale, she points out: "You get to know the farmers."

A workable solution

When large tracts of agriculturally zoned land are slated for development, residents don't have to feel that they are completely losing out. With a lot of patience and flexibility, everyone in the community can benefit from the result.

Take, for example, Lee Alpert's work on a 5,600-acre project south of Denver. Mr. Alpert, a developer, took part in more than 100 meetings with homeowners, citizens' advisory groups, community leaders, and county engineers and planners during a three-year effort to win public approval for The Canyons in Castle Rock, Colo.

Initially, the plan called for building 12,000 homes, three golf courses, and 9,000 square feet of office space where cattle once grazed. Things changed dramatically, however, after the community meetings.

Now, the 15-year master plan calls for clustering 2,500 homes, eliminating a golf course and all commercial development, and creating a 500-acre nature preserve that not only will capture water, but could help restore lost wildlife habitat.

This plan was also influenced by discussions with environmentalists, biologists, and water engineers, who saw an opportunity to use retention ponds instead of a more traditional storm-drain system to revive the dry landscape.

"Simply by allowing water to pool in these areas, the vegetation will come back," says Steve McCormick with RNM Architects and Planners, who is working with the development team. Once native vegetation is reestablished, antelope, deer, and other species are expected to return.

The developers also responded to citizens' concerns about the need for extra schools. Previous agricultural zoning allowed only one house per 35 acres, but this project called for greater density. So the developers donated land for three schools and agreed to contribute to the county's added educational costs.

Perhaps the most critical piece in the approval process, however, was the decision to preserve the open-space views.

Land formations and the nature preserve will be used to obscure the houses from motorists driving along Interstate 25.

"It just happens there are probably more people affected by this project from their cars than directly from their backyards," Mr. McCormick says.