Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia
Be Serene—combine the two words and you get Serenbe, a 1,000-acre community that integrates the lush landscape of the Georgia countryside with a compact, environmentally-oriented mixed-use development of three hamlets: Selborne, Grange, and Mado.
Located 30 miles southwest of Atlanta, Serenbe is nestled in the heart of 40,000 acres of forest—now incorporated as the City of Chattahoochee Hills—protected by a development plan that preserves 70 percent of the area’s green space. A centerpiece of the Serenbe community is the 25-acre, organic Serenbe Farms, which not only supplies produce to a weekly farmer’s market and onsite and regional restaurants, but also helps to forge a sense of identity for the overall development.
Integrating agriculture with homes is only part of the molding of a balanced community. With pedestrian-oriented village cores that consist of retail, restaurants, galleries, and office space, Serenbe is projected to include 1,000 to 1,200 homes and live/work units and up to 250,000 square feet of commercial among miles of trails, stables, pastures, wetlands, and forests
It began with a weekend visit. Serenbe’s founders Steve and Marie Nygren—then big names in the Atlanta restaurant scene, with 34 restaurants and counting—took their three daughters on a weekend outing to get to know the Georgia countryside. In 1991, they purchased the first 60 acres of what is now Serenbe but, after three years of weekend visits, they wanted more. So, they retired from the restaurant businesses, sold their home in the city, and relocated the family full-time to the countryside. In 1996, they converted the 1930s stable next to their home into a guesthouse and opened the Inn at Serenbe.
As they watched visitors to the lodge interact with the land, returning rejuvenated from their forays into nature, they also watched as a spike in population growth and rapid housing expansion sent Atlanta’s urban sprawl further and further into the Georgia countryside. As the city grew, the Nygrens worried that it would soon encroach on their wooded community in Chattahoochee Hill Country. Finally, as he recounts it, Steve went for a jog one morning in 2000, saw bulldozers on another farm, and decided to do something about their concerns.
Initially, they thought only of protection: buy more land, create a green buffer. But, they realized that the demands of growth from the burgeoning metropolis were inescapable, and sought a way to integrate development with preservation.
“We started looking and researching about how you can both develop and preserve the land,” said Steve Nygren. “We started asking, ‘What does a balanced community mean?’”
They gathered other landowners in the area to discuss how to best preserve the natural landscape while also accommodating the inevitable need for housing and development. After a series of public meetings and discussions, they helped form the Chattahoochee Hill Country Alliance, which was tasked with creating a plan to develop the land without succumbing to the model of traditional sub-tract suburban communities that historically preserve only 20 percent of green space.
The Alliance worked to create a sustainable vision for the estimated 30,000 residences that were projected to populate this lush hill country. By combining various land-use tools, including outright land purchase, conservation easements, a transfer of development rights program, and the development of zoning that requires mixed-use hamlets and villages, landowners and planners from four counties throughout the hill country worked together to foster regional growth while ensuring that at least 70 percent of the 40,000 acres would remain green space.
In 2001, the Alliance hired a professional planning firm to create a template for development. The plan designers realized that the way to preserve the most green space while still allowing room for development was through the creation of compact villages tucked within the forest, and established the Chattahoochee Hill Country Community Plan. The Plan called for a European-village model of high-density residential hamlets within walking distance of community centers and commerce combined with larger surrounding tracts of open space.
The final plans ultimately provided the capacity for 20 percent more residential units than would have been possible with traditional development practices even while preserving over 70 percent of the land for agriculture and open space. The project and ensuing plan was so well received that community members incorporated the rural area into a new city, Chattahoochee Hills, in 2007.
The Nygrens partnered with Rawson Haverty to build the first of these hamlets in the Chattahoochee Hill Country, demonstrating how growth did not necessarily have to come at the cost of preservation. In addition to the physical land plan, which integrated residential and commercial hamlets with forested areas, the Nygrens envisioned Serenbe as a model for integrated community based on four central components: art, education, wellness, and agriculture.
Serenbe Farms was the first of these components to be developed. While the 25-acre organic farm doesn’t occupy central physical presence in the Serenbe landscape, it serves as a symbolic and functioning centerpiece for the community, creating a distinct residential culture as well as a marketable identity for the development.
Nationwide, the demand for locally grown food has coincided with a “fundamental change in the way [developers] think about the amenities that people like in new home communities,” said Ed McMahon, a senior fellow with the Urban Land Institute. “Agriculture is the new golf.”
Homes near golf courses command up to 50 percent land premiums over comparable tract subdivisions. But, “60 percent of golfers who live near golf courses don’t play golf,” said McMahon. “They say, ‘I like the view across the fairway, I like to live next to protected green space.’”
Serenbe took that “view across the fairway” premium and made it productive. Lots at Serenbe command 75 to 150 percent premiums over land outside the community, offering the rural appeal of farm living without the farm hassle. Homeowners don’t work on the farm, but still enjoy access to fresh produce, miles of walking trails, acres of open space, and the community that emerges around food.
In 2009, the five-acre Serenbe farm harvested 56,000 pounds of produce, “the whole of which stays within 50 miles,” said Paige Witherington, the 28-year-old manager of Serenbe Farms. Produce is distributed to the 120 residents subscribed to the community supported agriculture program, sold at the Saturday farmers market, and to other restaurants and vendors in Atlanta. Farm production includes over 50 different vegetables, fruits, flowers, and herbs in over 300 different varieties, as well as laying hens, shiitake and oyster mushrooms, honeybees, a blueberry orchard, and fruit trees.
The farm is owned by the Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture & the Environment (which is funded by fees paid by all incoming homeowners), and closed to residents except for designated volunteer days. Keeping farm operations independent from individual homeowners or a homeowners association helps ensures the long-term viability of the farm. That said, the farmers are an integral part of the community, participating in community events and a regular lunchtime fixture at the town’s bakeshop.
“You want the farm to be a permanent fixture in the community,” said Daron Joffe, the founder of Atlanta-based Farmer D Organics, who helps design and implement residential farms across the country, including the farm at Serenbe. “You want it to be sustainable and economical and exist independent of the developer or farmer or residents.”
Joffe helped design the farm at Serenbe in 2002, before any houses were built. “Putting the farm in the right place is first and foremost the most important part,” he said. “At Serenbe, they had an idea for the farm, and the developers just put it somewhere on the map. Then, the farmer comes in and goes, ‘you picked the worst soil on the property.’ The location is a really important part of figuring out [the farm] from a soils perspective and community interaction.”
The farm’s harvest has tripled in the five years Witherington has worked at Serenbe, partly as a result of this early attention to cultivating soil quality.
The farm was developed at an estimated cost of $50,000, most of which went to storage facilities. Nygren amortized this initial investment in the farm as part of the Serenbe’s amenities budget. Though the farm was subsidized by the development during its first three years of operations, it’s now financially sustainable and turned its first profit in 2010, said Witherington.
In addition to the farm, Nygren said that much of the common-area landscaping is also edible. Banks of blueberry and fig bushes line crosswalks, and pecan and peach trees line street medians. “When kids grow up seeing their food grown, it changes their entire attitude,” said Nygren. “If you grow up knowing what a fresh blueberry tastes like, you’re not going to settle for stuff that’s picked green and shipped.”
Community Amenities and Commercial
While the farm provided an early identity for Serenbe, “We’re not just building houses around farms,” said Nygren. “The farm is one of the elements that integrates to make it a total connected community.”
That community so far includes three critically acclaimed restaurants: The Blue Eyed Daisy bakeshop, The Hil, and The Farmhouse, all of which use produce from Serenbe Farms. Nygren took a gamble and built The Blue Eyed Daisy when only four homes had been completed, an early investment that paid off in marketing visibility. He estimates 1,000 people visit the three restaurants each weekend, which—with reviews in The New York Times, Food and Wine, and Bon Appetit—have become destinations in their own right.
The Inn at Serenbe has received similar accolades as a destination for those city dwellers looking to dip into country life. Guests can rent rooms in the Main Lodge or Lake House, both restored farmhouses, or stay in a variety of cottages, ranging from restored 1930s stables to modern lofts. Guests can also rent residential spaces within the Serenbe community. Rooms start at around $130/night, depending on the season, and come complete with Southern charm: afternoon tea, a full country breakfast, and use of, among other amenities, a croquet lawn and the Serenbe Farms animal village.
Because it was one of the first buildings completed, The Blue Eyed Daisy became a social center for the community. Central post boxes, located behind the bakeshop, are a gathering place, “where people stop in to talk, forming a social network,” said Shelton Stanfill, who moved to Serenbe in 2005 after visiting the lodge for a weekend. “I knew more people here by their first name in the first three months I lived here than in 11 years living in Atlanta.”
The Blue Eyed Daisy is located within the hamlet of Selborne, surrounded by galleries and other retail as well as townhomes, live/work units, and offices. A mixed-use commercial core sits at the center of each hamlet. Currently commercial uses are only located within the Selborne hamlet, though commercial uses are platted for the Grange hamlet, as well. Developers plan for Serenbe to be comprised of 10 to 15 percent commercial space at buildout.
The Serenbe Institute, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, represents Nygren’s third pillar of balanced community: art. The Institute’s mission is to foster connections between nature, culture, and the arts, and seeks “to cultivate the community’s creative, intellectual, and ecological qualities through programs and projects that promote our social, spiritual, and aesthetic curiosity.” Programs include an artist residency, visiting scholar’s residencies, a state-of-the-art film and digital photography center, and a playhouse.
Established in 2010 under the Institute’s auspices, the Serenbe Playhouse also hosts open-air theatrical performances throughout the summer at different stages within Serenbe. Ticket prices beginning at $15, and are open to the public. The Serenbe Photography Center offers once-monthly photography workshops and a studio where professional and amateur photographers can make prints. Run by Steve and Marie’s daughter Kara Nygren, Camp Serenbe offers week-long summer and adventure camps for kids aged 3 to 12. Other cultural events include a Late Night Cabaret Series, fine arts workshops, and cooking classes.
Serenbe is part of the Fulton County school system. Palmetto Elementary, Bear Creek Middle School, and Creekside High School are all approximately ten minutes away from Serenbe. There are also several private schools located near the community.
In the fall of 2012, Chattahoochee Hills Charter School will open for students kindergarten to sixth grade with a mission to integrate the arts, agriculture, and environmental education into an experiential-based school. The open-enrollment, public charter school will be located in the City of Chattahoochee Hills, at the corner of Atlanta-Newnan Road and Selborne Way. With a maximum enrollment of 270 its first year, the school plans to add 45 students a year to eventually becomes a full-service K-8 school with an enrollment of 405 by 2014.
In 2010, Lisa Miles, a resident of the nearby town of Newnan, opened the Children’s House at Serenbe for 15 kids aged 3-6. Though the Children’s House is located at Serenbe, the Montessori-based primary school is open to students from all over the South Fulton area. The Children’s House also offers a toddler program for kids ages 18 months to 3 years as well as an afterschool activities program, with nature walks, arts and crafts, animal feedings, and music, for kids ages 18 months to 6 years.
Serenbe’s land planner Phill Tabb designed the community as a constellation of three interconnected hamlets. The omega-shaped hamlets were designed to fit into the natural landscape, facilitating the interaction between green, wetland, and watershed areas of the site and the sloping hills. Each hamlet will have its own particular character, forming part of the pillars of community that the Nygrens initially envisioned. The design takes many of its cues from the New Urbanist playbook, although the form—a linear English Village folded back on itself—is more a walkable grid than the more typical drivable one—a fact borne out by the residents, who walk to the Blue Eyed Daisy, the mail stations, and the farmer’s market.
Many residents regularly commute to Atlanta to work, or work out of their homes. Eighty percent of families are full-time residents, while 20 percent are second homeowners, from as far away as California and New York. As of 2011, Serenbe had 240 residents in 110 homes, though another 224 lots are platted for development and the community has zoning approval for 1,000.
The first community to be built was the Selborne hamlet which, at about 80 percent complete, is Serenbe’s hub for the arts—visual, performing, and culinary. Grange, which is 15 percent complete, is the community’s farm hamlet, given its proximity to the Serenbe farms and the Serenbe Stables, a boarding and lesson facility open to the public.
The planned Mado hamlet—named for the Creek-Indian word meaning “things in balance”—will focus on health and wellness. Planned developments at Mado include traditional and holistic medical services, assisted living, and a destination spa.
Each of the hamlets are connected by roads, trails, and bridle paths, intended to foster a pedestrian-based lifestyle and contribute to active living and a coherent sense of place. Living options include cottages, townhouses, live/work spaces, and estates, and each hamlet will include a mixture of styles.
Townhouses begin in the mid-$400,000s on 1/8 acre-plots, and provide the core anchor of each hamlet. Many of these two- and three-story homes are designed with the primary living space on the upper floors, known as the “piano nobile.” These long, narrow homes have balconies facing the street and any adjacent alley, and are designed to foster an urban community feel. According to the Serenbe plan, the architecture “will borrow from the antebellum industrial style, such as you find in the old dairy ruins on the Serenbe property.”
The live/work spaces at Serenbe are intended to offer residents compact spaces to combine living and working. The ground floor of each of the two- or three-story units is a storefront that can be utilized as a studio, workshop, or retail space. The living quarters are located on the floors above, and the architectural style of the live/work spaces will be inspired by local historic downtown areas.
Estates are placed on larger, unstructured lots of 1/2 acre and are set back from the road. Estate lots begin at $250,000. Architectural styles are left to the individual property owner to decide, but are to be “rural in finish and casual in spirit,” according to the Serenbe website.
Responding to the slow real estate market, some larger lots were subdivided to create the Nest, a closely-built hamlet of two- to three-bedroom cottages. Of 15 planned cottages, which are priced from $260,000 to $455,000, five have already been sold. These smaller footprint—and smaller price tag—cottages were an important adaptation to the real estate market, attracting buyers who might not otherwise have been able to access the townhomes or estates.
The average house size at Serenbe is 2,500 square feet. As of October 2011, 224 lots have been platted, with zoning approval for 1,000 lots and up to 1,200 projected. Residential lots are approved according to unit design and type rather than square footage.
“We’re still young,” said Tucker Berta, Serenbe’s communications director. Serenbe’s development was tracked into three phases: phase one is 80 percent complete and developers are 15 to 20 percent into phase two. Despite the economy, “[w]e’re pretty much on track from where we said we’d be five years ago. We’ve hung on, and still sold some houses faster than many other developments around the nation.”
Indeed, “These kind of communities perform pretty well in the marketplace,” said McMahon of the ULI. “Many tend to be on the higher-priced side, [because] green space creates value. People are willing to pay more for a smaller lot, because the lot comes with a farm and 300 acres [of open space]. You’re buying a park along with the lot.”
Homeowners don’t actually own any of Serenbe’s forests or green space. The open space land is deeded to a Serenbe land trust, which was established separately from the homeowners association. All buyers pay a transfer fee to the Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture, and the Environment, which is used for the creation of community events and programs, the land trust, and other community initiatives. The fee is 1 percent of the purchase price of a house or 3 percent of the total purchase price of an unimproved lot.
Sustainability at Serenbe
All homes are built to the standards of EarthCraft House guidelines, and are placed on and within sites with the goal of creating minimal disturbance to the natural terrain. Many homes use geothermal heating, and all are designed in relation to the sun to maximize natural heating and cooling, with windows placed for cross-ventilation. Instead of traditional, water-intensive green lawns, front yards are dotted with native plants and organic landscaping that blend into the surrounding landscape. Underground trashcans sort trash, recycling and compost, and outdoor lighting regulations that eliminate accidental uplighting ensure clear, starry skies.
Water conservation is also a priority at Serenbe. The monthly water usage for Serenbe as a community is 25 percent lower than the national average. Water conservation practices include water-smart appliances like dual-flush toilets and stormwater treatment using natural barriers. Wastewater treatment at Serenbe is part of a state-of-the-art decentralized natural wastewater system, which is managed by a private utility at a cost of about $50 per month for each resident.
There are four components of the wastewater treatment system. The plant is comprised of man-made constructed wetlands—primarily cattails and bulrush—filtration basins, and circulating pumps. Collection tanks collect household wastewater, retain the solids for decomposition, and pass on the liquids to the plant for natural treatment. Single-family homes each have 1,500-gallon tanks, and townhomes and live/work homes are connected in a communal tank. Once treated, some of the water is pumped to the nearby cow pasture and released into the ground through piped sub-surface drip lines. The remaining greywater is pumped to individual yards for use in sub-surface drip irrigation.
Serenbe is located in the heart of Chattahoochee Hill Country, a 65,000-acre, rolling hill forest and a prime destination for cyclists, runners, and hikers.
According to a commissioned study by Atlanta-based Arborguard Tree Specialists, the trees at Serenbe—most commonly the loblolly pine, white oak, sweetgum, and water oak—store 1,333,840 tons of carbon and sequester an additional 52,660 tons of carbon per year. The trees also remove 1,484 tons of pollution a year from the air, which is the equivalent of the carbon emissions of 182,717 cars in a year (or, the emissions of 106,792 single-family homes in a year). Because the region’s winds blow northwest through this hill country before they reach metro Atlanta, the air in Atlanta is measurably cleaner than it would be without these preserved green spaces—and the air in Serenbe is the cleanest in the Atlanta Metro area.
Ultimately, communities like Serenbe offer a philosophical challenge to the traditional real estate model—people think “you either have development or you have agriculture,” said McMahon. “You wouldn’t buy a car by the pound, but what we’ve done with houses is sold them by square feet.” Developments like Serenbe are selling something different, something integrated: community, expansive open space, access to agriculture, and a distinct relationship to the land and the food we eat.
For more information, visit Serenbe at www.serenbe.com.
- Bonvissuto, Danny. “Where to Go Next: Atlanta,” Food and Wine, November, 2008.
- “Chattahoochee Hill Country Master Plan,” Chattahoochee Hill Country Conservancy, 2001.
- Grooms, Tyler. “Alternative to Golf Course Developments in an Environmentally Sensitive Market,” Cornell Real Estate Review, July 2010.
- Heid, Jim. “Greenfield Development Without The Sprawl: The Role of Planned Communities,” The Urban Land Institute, 2004.
- Kimble, Megan. “Suburban living, down on the farm,” Los Angeles Times, November 29, 2010.
- Knowlton, Andrew. “Top Ten Best New Romanic Getaways,” Bon Appétit, February 2010.
- Pearce, Annie. “Serenbe Sustainable Development: Project Charrette,” Conference at Serenbe Bed & Breakfast, September 11, 2000.
- Ranney, Vickey, Keith Kirley and Michael Sands, “Building Communities with Farms,” Liberty Prairie Foundation, 2010.
- Sack, Kevin. “Outside Atlanta, a Utopia Rises,” New York Times. February 23, 2009.
- “Serenbe ArborScout Tree Inventory: Assessing Effects and Values of Urban Trees,” Arborguard Tree Specialists, June 2009.
- “Serenbe: Lungs of Atlanta,” Atlanta Business Chronicle, October 23, 2009.
- Tabb, Phillip, “Placemaking as a Sustainable Planning Strategy: Serenbe Community,” Texas A&M University.
- Personal interviews, November 2010:
- Tucker Berta
- Daron Joffe
- Ed McMahon
- Steve Nygren
- Tom Reed
- Shelton Stanfill
- Paige Witherington
Megan Kimble runs, hikes, and bikes around Tucson, where she’s a student in University of Arizona’s MFA program for creative nonfiction. You can find her on her blog, www.megankimble.com, or in her kitchen, where she’s often making chocolate or burning toast.