“Can you see it now?”
“Nope.” I’m standing on the road with Candy and Sue. They’re siblings, both retired. We’re going to build their home here on this beautiful piece of land. Wayne is back there somewhere, holding a long string tied to a red helium balloon. He’s bushwhacking his way through tall brush, weaving between the trees, and talking into his cell phone. “How about now? Can you see it now?”
Debra Blessman of Select Home Designs designed the home. She's standing on the road with Candy and Sue and me, all of us peering into the woods. “Where are you now?” she says into the speakerphone.
“I’m standing in the middle of that sweet spot we marked,” says Wayne. “I’m parallel with the big live oak. I’ve let the string all the way out to 18 feet.”
Debra turns and explains, “That’s the height of the roof."
Frank Davis, Director of Land Conservation for the Hill Country Conservancy nods. He paces up the road to see if he can spot Wayne's red balloon at the tree tops. The purpose of today’s exercise is to ensure we situate the house in such a way that it’s not clearly visible from the nearby public road, a requirement for building on this particular piece of conservation land, managed by the Hill Country Conservancy.
Frank comes back down the road and joins us. “I think we’re good,” he says with a grin.
“Okay, I’m coming in,” says Wayne. “Oh damn," he laughs over the phone, "I broke my balloon.”
What does this mean – conservancy land?
Well, the property where Candy and Sue’s new home will stand is connected to an older established neighborhood. However, Candy and Sue’s property is different – it’s part of a large parcel of land protected by a conservation agreement that was granted by its previous owners to Hill Country Conservancy. This voluntary land preservation agreement (commonly referred to as a conservation easement) ensures the natural character of the land is preserved, forever.
Land that has been preserved in its natural state rather than being fragmented into smaller parcels provides significantly better habitat, as well as natural filtration of rainwater, erosion prevention, clean air, and numerous other benefits that the natural world provides the community.
A conservation easement enables landowners to protect the natural resources they value while maintaining private ownership. In Texas, conservation easements are generally donated to nonprofit conservation organizations, commonly known as land trusts. I won’t pretend to understand all the legal in’s and out’s of a conservation easement. (If you’re interested, you can read all about it on the Hill Country Conservancy web site , and at the Texas Land Trust Council.) However, as a fifth-generation Texan in a state where there’s a dearth of open, public land, I can tell you that I admire the work of the 35+ land trusts across the state, doing what they can to preserve bits and pieces of private land in its natural state.
What does it mean to build on such land?
Well, you don’t have to live in a cabin with a dirt floor or haul creek water. Each conservation easement comes with its own, unique set of agreements, of course. For Candy and Sue, we’re building a spacious, comfortable, energy-efficient home. It has a metal roof, 30,000-gallon rainwater tank, 6.2kW solar photovoltaic system, even an efficient spa/pool and surrounding deck nestled against a grove of trees. It’s a forever home designed for enjoying now, but also for aging in place in terms of its layout, its accessible bathrooms, its plentiful space for long-term guests and future caretakers.
While planning and designing the home, we had to take care and abide by Conservancy guidelines and get their approval on our proposed site plan and the placement of the house. For example, we had to: Survey and identify the trees in the area where we planned to build. Survey the property for possible sinkholes, caves, and underground drainage systems. Situate the house and driveway so as to minimize disruption of the terrain and prevent the removal of any significant trees. Guard against erosion when clearing the driveway, digging the septic field, and constructing the home. Plant any landscaping with hardy, native species. And so forth.
Actually, the conservation goals are very consistent with the values we follow when planning and building any green home – careful, efficient, respectful use of resources all around.
On a personal level, Wayne is getting a kick out of taking a piece of raw land and gently setting down a home on it. Debra has enjoyed the challenge of giving Candy and Sue everything they wanted in the design while squeezing the home into a certain sweet spot among some old, enormous, beautiful oak trees meant to be saved. For me, it’s wee bits of a second childhood. Growing up, I was a lucky child who had backyard access to hundreds of acres of preserved land where I roamed freely and happily, and so I love visiting the jobsite and tromping around Candy and Sue’s land, spotting birds, studying the trees and grasses and rocks, and returning with my socks and shoelaces full of burrs.
It’s fun building a home.
And Candy and Sue? They have a keen sense of stewardship, both in the land itself and in the goals for their comfortable, energy-efficient home.
“We were looking for a beautiful piece of land,” says Candy. “We weren’t specifically looking for conservancy land, but it’s a good match. What we wanted to do is a good fit with the conservancy goals.” Sue adds: “The longer we live with this, the happier we are that we’ll be in the midst of a nature preserve. We want you and Wayne to hurry up and finish our house so we can move in.”
Ok, ladies. We’ll try to finish up by April.