If you build a development with its own farm, will they come?
David Miskell and Bobby Young
The warm tones of a Wagner overture can be heard in the living room of one of the South Village model homes where developer David Scheuer is sitting. Like the house around him, he has a polished yet casual air, with a crisp white shirt and ironed khakis; trendy rimless glasses perch on his nose. He sits comfortably in a wingback chair beside a fireplace, with a rose-colored ottoman resting on a sisal rug beneath his feet. On the wall hang artists’ representations of how Scheuer’s South Burlington development will look after it’s built. They depict people strolling on tidy streets lined by gardens and pretty houses with porches and rocking chairs.
The real-life scene is just as placid until Scheuer is asked a question that unnerves him: How’s the real estate market?
“Are you trying to put me in tears?” Scheuer retorts, shifting in his chair with an uneasy laugh.
For Scheuer, the president of Burlington-based development company Retrovest, the last year has been a wash. The units in South Village development began selling about a year ago, just as the U.S. real estate market went into a death spiral and dragged the rest of the economy with it. So far, five single-family homes and five town homes have been built, including three single-family model homes and a sales center. Most are clustered on a ridge at the intersection of Spear and Allen Streets, looking as if they could use some neighbors.
The plan, Scheuer says, was for the development to sell between 20 to 30 homes annually, with a goal of building 300 in all. But because of the market, “We’ve really lost a year,” he concedes.
While the timing may be rotten, Scheuer has something else going for him: a vision that encompasses many ideals increasingly dear to Vermonters, including sustainability, community-supported agriculture and energy-efficient building. The development’s farm and accompanying CSA are the top reason prospective buyers say they’re interested in South Village’s homes, priced from $275,000 to $600,000, according to sales and marketing director Kelly Fiske.
Scheuer is a student of the New Urbanism movement, which arose in the 1980s to counter car-centric suburban developments. New Urbanism stresses a diverse population and streets designed with pedestrians in mind. Those ideals grabbed Scheuer when he visited Seaside, Fla., one of the first towns to be developed along those principles; it served as the idyllic suburban set for the movie The Truman Show.
A sort of trial run for South Village was Retrovest’s The Palisades in Stowe. That development, located near the resort town’s Main Street businesses, features houses with front porches that face the street, while garages stand back from the road. It sold out, giving Scheuer the confidence to try something much more ambitious in Chittenden County.
The notion of combining agriculture with a new development came from Gardener’s Supply founder Will Rapp, who Scheuer says approached him with the idea of creating a community on the roughly 200-acre parcel of abandoned farmland. Where most developments would have a golf course, Scheuer says Rapp suggested this one could boast fruitful, revitalized fields.
The project is unlike any modern development in Vermont. A 15-acre farm, complete with a pick-your-own-berry patch and an orchard, will provide produce to South Village residents through a community-supported-agriculture model. Residents eager to grow their own tomatoes will be able to do so in community gardens. And walking paths will wind through 150 acres of restored wetlands and forest.
Scheuer envisions the development as eventually encompassing a bed-and-breakfast, a private school with a focus on sustainability, and a farm stand to sell the excess produce. While this type of community may be new to Vermont, it’s been successfully developed in Georgia, where a “900-acre sustainable-living community” called Serenbe includes homes, a farm and restaurants; another such settlement is Illinois’ Prairie Crossing.
At this point, though, South Village’s farm is further along than its residence component. Outside the model home where Scheuer sits, middle school students doing community service have spent the morning planting 1000 onions, scallions and leeks on the three acres that have been prepared. It’s a cloudy day with a raw wind rushing up from Lake Champlain, yet the sixth graders from Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School are happily poking the seedlings into holes. They stop for a moment to admire a red fox flashing through the brush.
Wildlife is a problem facing the farm. David Miskell, a farm consultant who grew the onion seedlings at his Charlotte greenhouses, frowns at holes in the fabric protecting broccoli and other brassicas. “Turkeys,” he says. Facing a double threat from wild birds and deer, Miskell is concerned the development will need to erect an electric fence around the plot.
Miskell, who started the gardens at Shelburne Farms, said he got involved with South Village when Rapp asked him to restore fertility to the land, which hadn’t been farmed for several decades. That meant clearing the acres of trees and brush, planting cover crops in 2007 and adding liquid manure. Getting the acres planted makes good business sense, Miskell notes. “Why we pushed on getting something started is so people can say, ‘It’s not just a dream,’” he says.
While the development hasn’t hit its goal for home sales, the farm has sold out of its 30 CSA shares, and two farmers are working the land. One, Bobby Young, is helping oversee the Tuttle students. The Farm to School coordinator for Burlington’s school district, he saw the chance to work at South Village as a way to begin his agricultural career. This year, because there aren’t enough residents to fill the roster, South Village offered CSA shares to its neighbors. Pick-your-own pumpkins and sunflowers will be available to the public later this year, Young adds. The berries and orchard are slated for 2011.
Eventually, the goal is to finance the farm through the sales and purchases of South Village homes, Miskell says. Half of 1 percent of each sale will be directed to a stewardship fund, which will finance the farm and wetlands restoration, he explains.
But Miskell declines to comment on who is currently funding the farm’s operations. “This year it’s not profit-making for anyone involved,” he adds, walking back toward the South Village homes.
Inside the model dwelling, Miskell places a rendering of the development’s plan on a large, rustic wooden table and points out future amenities — a soccer field, the proposed farm store, and greenhouses. Surrounding him are samples of wood and bamboo flooring, tiling and counter materials that buyers can choose to customize their homes.
The model homes feature open floor plans, crown molding and fireplaces. They seem to have been decorated to give visitors the sense of entering a Pottery Barn catalogue. In one model kitchen, a bowl of plastic strawberries rests beside a rolling pin, as if the owner has just stepped out while making pie. Carefully arranged boxes of Vermont-made cookies and crackers fill the pantry.
Not all these features are cosmetic. All the homes, the biggest of which run about 2600 to 2800 square feet, are LEED-certified, short for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.” High-efficiency LED porch lighting and carpeting with low VOC emissions are incorporated into the design.
While the homes aren’t cheap, eventually Scheuer wants to build what he calls “workforce housing,” or dwellings designed for two-income families who make slightly more than the Vermont median income of just over $50,000. They’re the teachers and EMTs who work in South Burlington yet can’t currently afford to live there, he explains.
Of course, building those units depends on selling the bigger houses first. How long will that take? Scheuer says he’s hopeful the economy is improving. For now, though, potential buyers are wary of purchasing when they can’t sell their current homes.
“No one had anticipated we’d lose a year to the market,” says Scheuer, pensive again. Come harvest time, the fields above the lake will yield their bounty for the first time in decades. But the vision of a diverse, close-knit community to share it remains on the drawing board.
** The web version of this article includes changes that were left out of the print edition.