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Moving to the Agriburbs

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Charlotte-area developers Bill Harris and John Fletcher are planning the region's first agriburb. hspace=4

http://66.225.205.104/JR20090729.mp3

America has a growing obsession with farmer's markets, organic food and eating local. And there's a not-so-new American obsession with living near a golf course or big open space. Two North Carolina developers and a farmer with a master's in urban planning think they can blend those two obsessions and thrive, even in a tough housing market. WFAE's Julie Rose reports: You don't have to venture too deeply into the suburbs of a big American city right now to find an abandoned subdivision. Usually there are one or two finished houses - all sad-looking - in a vacant field, and a faded strand of colorful flags leading to an empty model home. John Fletcher's got at least three subdivisions of them in the Charlotte area alone. "I've lost, uh, three builders in the last two years," says Fletcher. "They can't get financing, they can't - you know, I've lost 'em." The last builder he lost was at his newest, and most ambitious, development in the town of Granite Quarry, near Salisbury. Fletcher and his business partner Bill Thomas were lucky they got a loan of about eight million dollars to buy and prepare the land just before banks stopped lending in 2007. Without a builder, though, the whole project went on ice. "Then we got on this Agriburbia concept," says Fletcher. Agriburbia - as opposed to suburbia. Essentially, using the open space in and around a subdivision for agriculture. "One of the benefits is that it's almost set up the way we would design it to start with," says Quint Redmond. He's the guy who will help Fletcher and Thomas turn 120 suburban acres into an Agriburb. "My background and my wife - uh, she comes from the country and I grew up farming and ranching in Colorado," says Redmond. "And we also have master's degrees in planning and land use." Redmond still lives in Colorado but is spending a lot of time in North Carolina right now because the Granite Quarry development is his first full-scale attempt at Agriburbia. He actually trademarked that term, so he's naturally the one to give me a tour of the property. Right now it's a big open field rimmed by dark green trees. I ask Redmond to help me imagine what the subdivision would look like. "It looks very much like any traditional subdivision," he says. "The only difference is that you'll pass organic vineyards or organic orchards or whatever the planting plan ultimately includes on your way in." A stream runs through the property and the 12 acres beyond it will be a commercial farm, run by an organic farmer who's paid by the homeowners association. The HOA will sell the crops to restaurants and stores hungry for locally-grown produce. The rest of the development will be homes and condos topping out around $300,000, with varying sizes of backyard gardens: "So here's a guy that has just chosen not to have any garden," he says, pointing to a drawing of the proposed development, since nothing's actually been built yet. "And over here on some of the larger lots they really actually take it seriously." Homeowners can opt to keep the harvest from their garden or let the HOA sell it. Redmond guesses you could make several hundred dollars a year that way. But it's totally up to you, so forget those hippy commune images in the back of your mind. "I don't have to watch your kids on Thursday afternoon as part of the deal," says Redmond, chuckling. "You know? If I want to because we produce tomatoes together and we become friends, then that's a free choice." There's also pretty strong evidence that living in Agriburbia will make for better home resale when you decide to move. Maybe even better than a home on a golf course. "In many ways, agriculture is the new golf in residential development," says Ed McMahon, a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute. He adds that most people who live on a golf course never actually swing a club. They just like seeing all that green from their windows. "So a light bulb starts to go on in the mind of savvy developers who say 'Duh, maybe I could build the golf course development without the golf course,'" says McMahon. He estimates at least 200 projects are underway around the country with some type of farm or garden as a central component. A developer in suburban Chicago blazed the trail ten years ago with a high-end subdivision built around a working farm. Countless others have planted community gardens or started co-ops to sell their garden produce at the local farmer's market. But McMahon says Agriburbia is the first to use agriculture as a money making operation and an amenity. "Basically they've discovered that growing food close to home is actually something the homebuyers are interested, but also can actually make money for the developer, generating revenue while you're waiting to sell houses," says McMahon. And that's why Fletcher and Thomas believe Agriburbia will salvage their plans in Granite Quarry. They'll plant the farm first to generate some cash flow. Meanwhile, potential buyers can tour the farm on four wheelers where they'll hopefully fall in love and pick a home site. A cluster of eager buyers might be enough to convince a bank to front the money for construction. It's a bit of a long shot at a time when most new home building is at a standstill. But Agriburbia combines two of America's big obsessions right now: saving money and eating better. So it just might work.