At their core, most of our projects begin with the simple yet effective process of listening. We listen to our clients to understand their vision for their project, and then we help them expand and refine their vision based on our expertise. These projects tend to follow fairly conventional patterns for development, such as a park that backs up to a local neighborhood, or a commercial tract located along a major highway. But every once in a while, we find a client with a vision that breaks the mold for typical development patterns. Such is the case with the Chattahoochee Hill Country.
Just twenty minutes from Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest airport, lies 40,000 acres of virtually undeveloped land consisting of woods and pastures, rock outcrops, and creeks that abut the Chattahoochee River. It is practically unheard of for this type of bucolic countryside to exist adjacent to the sprawling metroplex of Atlanta. But the Chattahoochee Hill Country does not exist in its pastoral state simply by chance; rather, it took a concerted and innovative effort to preserve the character of this pristine area while at the same time providing a blueprint for future development.
In 2002, led by a group of visionary landowners determined to guard their dark night skies, two-lane roads, and country way of life, the Chattahoochee Hill Country Alliance took notice of the suburban development that was happening in other areas of Atlanta. They knew that cul-de-sac sub-divisions and strip shopping centers were not the answer they were seeking. They wanted something unique – something that allowed for development to occur but that did not impact the pastoral qualities of the neighborhoods they so dearly loved. They studied various other plans that had been developed in other states and determined that there was an answer to their dilemma.
The roughly 40,000 acres/63 square miles of the Chattahoochee Hill Country was held by a total of about 700 landowners. The existing zoning on the land was mostly agricultural, which allowed a total density of one unit per acre. Even at this level of density, there was the potential for approximately 31,000 more residential units to be added to the Chattahoochee Hill Country over time. In a series of public meetings lead by our team, it was determined that a rezoning was not in their best interest – after all, rezoning is precisely what lead to the typical suburban development patterns they were trying to avoid. Instead, we worked with the landowners to create a combination of community planning tools that would achieve a distinct balance between preservation and development.
The most unique tool that was chosen to guide development of the Chattahoochee Hill Country is the Transfer of Development Rights (TDR). The TDR balances three key priorities: preserving large amount of land, encouraging development in certain selected areas, and allowing landowners to capitalize on the value of their land. First, a landowner decides to sell his or her development rights on a per-acre basis via TDR credits. The landowner’s land is called the sending area. A developer purchases the TDR credits from the landowner and uses the credit to secure land in one of three designated development pods, also known as receiving areas. A conservation easement is then placed over the sending area that protects it from future development, while higher-density development is allowed to occur in the receiving area/development pod. With careful planning, the development pods were integrated into the landscape so that they were tucked away out of sight from major roadways.
Another development option was also created for landowners who hold larger tracts of land (200 acres minimum), where they can choose to develop a “hamlet” with the provision that at least 60% of the land is placed under a conservation easement. The first and most successful hamlet development was Serenbe, a series of smaller developments centered around a village common, much like the English country villages. This project is located on approximately 1,000 acres of land (75% of which are preserved) and has its own non-chemical, low-energy consuming sewage treatment facility. Hamlets do not require the purchase of TDRs, provided they follow the conditions of development.
In the ensuing fifteen years since the adoption of their master plan, the Chattahoochee Hill Country (now known as the City of Chattahoochee Hills) has indeed retained its bucolic nature and is still the draw to its citizens that it always has been. Development in the area, such as Serenbe, has proven to be not only a good neighbor, but also an example of how a different kind of greenfield development can be successful in urban areas.
Note: The Chattahoochee Hill Country Community Master Plan was completed by Kerry Blind while working for the firm he founded, Ecos Environmental Design. Kerry has since sold his firm and is now Vice President and Principal-in-Charge of RVi’s Atlanta office.