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Where NATURE takes its course

Whippoorwills call here at sunset, and under the dense canopy of trees the forest floor smells clean and loamy. Manatees swim up the Braden River. In the evening, a family of gray foxes steps out of the palmetto scrub.

Not your typical subdivision.

Here, on 25 acres 10 minutes from I-75, just 26 custom homes will rise in a development called River Forest.

"No pink stucco and no concrete tile roofs," says Joe King, architect and developer, whose family has owned the adjacent 120-acre King Ranch for decades. They purchased this parcel three years ago.

The homes, all of which he will design, may recall Florida Cracker architecture with metal roofs, or might be bungalows, Prairie style or modern. They will be tucked among carefully preserved mature trees and native plants, mindful of "the relation to the land and the relation to the landscape," King said. Their siting on the lots will take into consideration sun and shade, what the owners can see and what their neighbors can see.

No front-entry garages; no huge lawns to manicure or douse in pesticides. Live oaks and pines will act as natural screens between houses and as noise buffers along the road. The driveways will be covered with pine needles. There is a single looping road through the development, underlaid with 1,700 tons of recycled concrete.

King talked about sustainability and sensitivity to the environment as he walked along the loop road one recent morning. He pointed out the different ecosystems: Lot 14 is scrub oak forest; Lot 15 is pine flatlands. Native plumbago and holly thrive among the palmettos.

A path through the forest led to a boardwalk along the river. Invasive foreign species such as Brazilian peppers have been pulled out, and "we're interested to see what comes back," he said, pointing out American beautyberry and wild coffee plants.

The sensitivity to the landscape has already won awards. River Forest received the 1998 Outstanding Private Development Award from the Florida Planning and Zoning Association, and the 1998 First Place Commercial Landscape Award from the Florida Native Plant Society, which also gave its Award of Merit for Residential Landscape/Professional Design to the community's "idea house," and its Award of Merit for Ecosystem Restoration/Professional Design to its community park.

The native flowering plants and the tall stands of old trees do more than look nice. They offer shade, replenish oxygen, and moderate temperature and wind. They offer visual and acoustic privacy. Indigenous ground covers need no mowing or mulching and provide homes for wildlife. The plants will live and die in a natural cycle, perhaps occasionally requiring some trimming. The minimum of impermeable paved surfaces means groundwater will soak into the soil naturally, eliminating the need for drainage ponds.

The homes King designs here will offer similar sensitivity in their design and materials. They will use long-lasting, low-maintenance metal roofs and cement/fiberglass siding that resists rot and termites. Instead of the typical slab-on-grade construction, the houses will be raised a few feet to allow stormwater to run off naturally and to offer better views. Deep overhangs, porches and trees will shade the houses, which will be a minimum of 2,000 square feet. Only three builders will work in the development: Hensey-LaCamera Construction, Lonnie Larkin and Son, and Mark DeJong Builders.

"A metal roof costs more, but it's nice to have it," King said. "People want good things that last longer."

His buyers tend to be empty-nesters, move-up buyers who are ready to take the step from production homes to custom building. The home sites range from $69,000 to $150,000, and those prices include King's services as architect. Typically, a home and lot package, including design fees, costs $300,000 and up. The first three homes to be built there were priced in the low $400,000s.

King could have built 60 or 70 homes on the project had he done a conventional subdivision, but there were several reasons why he chose not to do so. One, he said, was "to have an appropriate neighbor" for the family-owned land next door. Another is that "we thought there was a place in the market for somewhat larger homes, custom-designed. We're right on the Braden River; it's an excellent location." There was also concern about dealing with stormwater runoff and other development issues. It would be easier "to preserve the natural environment if there was some natural environment left" after development.

Harold and Beverly Pearman stopped by River Forest on the way back from Publix one day a few months ago just to look around, and before they left, they had bought a lot and now have a home under construction. (Since they own a home building company, they're an exception to the only-certain-builders rule.)

As president of Whetstone Homes and the 1999 president of the Home Builders Association of Manatee County, Harold Pearman is familiar with the Manatee housing market.

"There is nothing like it" anywhere else in the county, he said. "That always makes it attractive. People like things that are different, and we think it's different, beautiful and pleasing."

He is enthusiastic about the low- or no-maintenance aspect of the project: "No lawnmower, no edging, no irrigation, nothing to worry about, and the house requires nothing on the exterior. We like the privacy that comes with having a house on a larger piece of property with all the foliage around and the natural setting."

The marketing difficulty for King, as developer and architect, Pearman said, will be persuading people to buy something they can't see. "The general public does not have that expertise or ability" to envision what a house will look like before it is built, and with each home custom-designed for a specific site _ a process that may take several months _ clients need to have "a trusting relationship with him as developer-architect."

Said Pearman: "We are thrilled with our results. We got a specific, truly custom house designed for us and our special needs and wants."

Beverly Pearman, vice president of Whetstone, pointed out specific features King incorporated into their house: a small "sleepless room" next to the master bedroom for those nights she or Harold can't sleep, so the insomniac doesn't end up on the living-room couch. (A subsequent owner might use this room as a nursery.) There are no formal living or dining rooms. King designed several spaces where conversations or card games or TV watching can go on simultaneously.

The Pearmans have tailored the guest wing for their 28-year-old daughter, Christie Naquin, who has cerebral palsy and uses a walker or wheelchair. The halls and doorways are wide, the bathroom has grab bars, a roll-in shower has a lower showerhead for bathing while seated, a scooped-out sink allows a wheelchair to roll under.

The Pearmans will show this suite to their own clients to demonstrate that these "universal design" features can be subtle and elegant as well as helpful for people at many ages and stages in their lives.

Instead of a model, King has designed what he calls an "idea house," which offers prospective buyers a look at what he designs and what they can have in their homes.

The two-story metal-roofed house has three bedrooms and three full baths in 3,130 square feet on a half-acre lot (price of home and lot: $425,000). There are two-sided gas fireplaces between the living room and study and between the master bedroom and its sitting room. An open-frame screened porch looks out onto a terrace with a water garden.

A huge laundry room, which King uses as his studio, is an example of the house's flexible space: It could be a potting room, hobby room, a place to set up a sewing machine, a science project, gift-wrapping or a jigsaw puzzle and simply close the doors on it. The study is large enough to be a first-floor bedroom. The two-car garage includes a shop area.

Features that later buyers have repeated are the oak floors, beadboard wainscoting, chair rails, wood window and door casings, oversized baseboards and built-in dressers in the bedroom closets.

King says that for one couple who are buying at River Forest, "the design of the house is less important, but they really, really want to live in the forest." That's why views out the windows to the oaks and pines are so important, he said; it's why he tucks discreet driveways behind the houses so nearby neighbors aren't staring at the back end of a garage.

"It's a shared view," he said, and "if somebody different designed for each lot," that concern for community values might be lost.

Beverly Pearman recalled seeing a tortoise, rabbits and a fox on the site. "Builders and developers need to pay more attention" to the environment, she said. River Forest is "the best example I could ever see of preserving what God gave us on this earth. We're not encumbering the environment, we're living in it and with it, the way we probably ought to be."