Residential Real Estate’s Natural Niche

There are gated communities — and then there are “enclaves.” The Bay Area is dotted with the former. The latter — the kind of high-end, environmentally sensitive living that Thoreau might have pined over — are more singular.

They’re residential hybrids. They combine the yesteryear ambience of nature, a strong conservation ethic, lots big enough for compound living, a small cadre of environmental consultants and vetted builders — and proximity to a major urban core.

“Surveys are proving that people like natural, open spaces to commune with nature, whether it’s walking, jogging, biking or meditating,” points out Stewart Gibbons, vice president and general manager of Terrabrook, the developer of Pasco County’s Connerton. The wetlands-friendly, village-like development in Land O’ Lakes will include houses in the $400,000-$500,000 range.

“That’s a market with a lot of appeal, no doubt,” underscores James Moore of the architectural-engineering consulting firm of HDR Inc. “We’re talking about those who want to see nature when they wake up — and in 25 minutes be smack in the middle of a big city. The master planning looks like something from an English landscape school.”

One notable enclave is Stonelake Ranch, which recently broke ground in eastern Hillsborough along the banks of Lake Thonotosassa. Co-developers Charlie Funk and Jeff Meehan, who also developed the gated community of Arbor Greene in New Tampa, purchased the 650-acre Hendry Ranch last year (for some $6 million).

“We had no idea this even existed until we saw it,” recalls Funk. “There are probably a lot of builders angry at their acquisition guys who didn’t tell them. There just aren’t many sites like it. This is like Ocala — but it’s only 20 minutes from downtown Tampa.”

At its peak, the ranch was home to as many as 400 head of cattle and 100 acres of citrus trees. In its next incarnation, it will house 147 homeowners on sites ranging from 1.5 acres to nearly 14 acres. Prices will range from the $700,000’s to $3 million and up. And up. Among the early buyers: a number of professional athletes and Lakeland physicians.

Current residents include egrets, herons, sandhill cranes, foxtail squirrels and a least one very prominent bald eagle. The rolling terrain is a mix of small ponds and Spanish moss-draped laurel and live oaks as well as cypress, cedar and hickory trees.

Funk and Meehan made the decision during their due diligence to not max out on densities. For openers, it would not have been welcomed by the county. It was also an exercise in enlightened self-interest: Paving over paradise wasn’t good business — but maintaining the property’s natural character was.

“This is a beautiful place, and we wanted to preserve what we could,” says Funk. “Our advice to the civil engineers was, ‘If there’s a conflict with a tree, take out the road.’ That’s how we approached it.”

That approach also has resulted in a bird sanctuary, a live oak tree farm, eight miles of 40-foot-wide riding trails, 120 acres of undisturbed meadows and setback provisions that exceed county requirements. And at elevations that top 80 feet, Stonelake is one of the highest points in Hillsborough County.

There is no elaborate clubhouse with tennis courts and a pool — that’s what individual compounds are for. Residents even have the option to build stables.

“This may sound corny, but we really did feel an obligation to do this right,” says Stonelake General Manager Brian Funk. “To act as if we all our stewards of the land.”

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