By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
A recent Wall Street Journal article, Luxury-Home Developers’ Latest Pitch: Unspoiled Nature, has inspired me to share some thoughts about owning a home in close proximity to nature.
WSJ’s Katy McLaughlin highlights several new real estate developments surrounded by nature preserves and protected conservation lands. The subtitle says it all:
Forget golf: A growing number of high-end home communities are being built around large nature preserves
For some buyers who love nature, this not-so-new concept holds appeal. And with the waning popularity of golf, and the substantial expense of maintaining the course, nature conservancy seems to be a relatively inexpensive amenity that some developers believe will sell high-end homes.
Of course, some critics have added their thoughts in the comment section of the article: this is just a way for the well-to-do to buy themselves relative privacy, at least along the rear boundary of the property.
Buyers are attracted to natural landscapes that they do not have to maintain. Or at least that’s the perception.
Now the reality
I have owned two homes surrounded by nature. There are pros and cons. Scenic views are neither automatically guaranteed nor maintenance-free. And not everything natural is wonderful. Sometimes nature can be a nuisance, and even downright unpleasant.
Allow me to explain by example.
House #1: The Wooded Lot (northern state)
For nearly two decades my husband and I owned a 1970s era hillside home on a wooded lot. (There was no homeowners association)
I can still recall the first day we toured the house with our real estate agent. It was late afternoon, early autumn. As we entered the main living space of the home, which had a huge picture window, there was a stunning view of majestic native hickory trees, with the setting sun glowing through brilliant golden foliage, shimmering in the cool fall breezes.
That view! It was definitely a major selling point.
We purchased the home, and moved in during a major November snow storm. The moving truck had barely pulled out of our driveway, as it was just getting dark, when the power went out.
Lesson number one about living in a heavily wooded area – in storms, trees often interfere with power lines in nearby older neighborhoods without underground utilities. We were often without power for many hours at a time. Good thing we had a gas fireplace.
In the spring, when the snow finally melted, we were dismayed to discover a thick layer of wet matted leaves from all of those trees. The seller had not bothered to rake them before moving out. Under tons and tons of leaves, there were at least a dozen tree stumps, which we had not noticed in the fall. Our first expense was about $1500 to hire someone with the proper equipment remove tree stumps, a dead evergreen, and various tree debris, and to do some selective pruning.
Creating and maintaining a green lawn was challenging, and downright impossible in some areas with heavy tree roots and shade. We planted a raised bed with beautiful lilies and other spring and summer bulbs.
Within 24 hours, the deer devoured them. Every. Single. One.
After that, I researched deer-resistant landscape plants, and chose more carefully.
In the summer, there was so much shade that the house seemed dark, even in the middle of the day. I often had to turn on the lamps by 2 PM. In the winter, the glare of the sun through the bare hickory trees made it impossible to watch TV without drawing light filtering curtains.
Tree roots from majestic maples made a crumbling mess of our driveway. During our ownership, we had to remove more than a dozen trees due to disease, property damage, or storm damage. Luckily, none directly fell onto our house, but many of my neighbors had to repair and replace their roofs when a tree fell upon their homes.
During the time we lived in the home we had to contend with various wildlife nuisances: field mice that would find their way into the basement, moles and chipmunks that would burrow tunnels underground and under our flagstone patio, every kind of spider you could imagine, carpenter ants and carpenter bees, hawks that could literally pick up a puppy or kitten as prey, skunks that would invade the yard at night (forcing us to close the windows), bears that would go on midnight garbage romps, coyotes that would howl all night, along with the owls.
House #2: The HOA home near conservation areas (southern state)
When we purchased house #2, which had a small lot and a view of a wetland preserve, we were attracted to the view of the wetland forest from the rear of the home. And we were happy we did not have to maintain it. The HOA would do that.
Or would they?
For about a year, the landscape contractors would regularly mow a narrow strip of lawn between our lot and the wetland preserve. They would trim back the wild brush to keep it from creeping beyond the easement.
But after the first year, the landscape company came less and less often. The grass and weeds would grow knee-high in some areas, and vegetation died off completely in others. Invasive plant species began to grow in along the wetland boundaries, with unattractive vines and brush obscuring the native plants.
I had a neighbor down the street that had to keep trimming back fauna to keep it from encroaching on her screen enclosure. Another neighbor complained that the wetland had literally taken over the rear corner of his yard, turning it into a boggy swamp infested with mosquitoes and snakes.
Like those described in the WSJ article, our lots were relatively small. You could throw a stone from the back door to the edge of the preserve. And even though quite a few homeowners filed complaints and maintenance requests, there was little to no actual conservancy effort, and minimal landscape services to keep the wilderness at bay.
Snakes and armadillos were frequent visitors in our yards -too frequent. At certain times of the year, the din of frogs croaking or wild boars snorting kept us awake at night. And in addition to deer, we had to watch out for alligators. One neighbor’s small dog became lunch for one large gator, and that prompted one of many calls to Animal Control.
We have since relocated, and now live in a more suburan location.
Don’t get me wrong. I still love views of nature. But I have learned to respect it. There is no such thing as low-maintenance natural landscapes, whether that responsibilty lies with the homeowner or an HOA.
There is hard work and cosiderable expense involved. And it’s actually better for the home and its occupants to have a healthy level of speparation from unspoiled wilderness.
In my experience, there is such as thing as having a yard that is too small, too wooded, and a bit too close to a wildlife habitat.