UF Scientists Help Design “Back To Nature” Housing Development

Tom Nordlie (352) 392-1773 x 277

Mark Hostetler hostetlerm@wec.ufl.edu, (352) 846-0643
Martha Lentz harmonyinstitute@earthl, (407) 957-0207
Eleanor Foerste ecfoerste@mail.ifas.ufl, (407) 846-4181
James Lentz ez@agen.ufl.edu, (407) 891-1616

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ST. CLOUD, Fla.—A planned community under construction in rural Osceola County will encourage residents to get back to nature, and may convince developers that ecologically intelligent practices can be profitable.

“If development is inevitable, let’s do it in a wise way,” said Mark Hostetler, a wildlife specialist with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). Hostetler is part of a team of research scientists connected with the community, named Harmony.

In February, construction began on infrastructure for Harmony’s first phase, which will contain 223 single-family homes when completed, Hostetler said. Residents will start arriving in summer, 2002. Harmony is located on a former cattle ranch that spans 11,100 acres and will be developed over the next 15 years, eventually containing about 5,000 homes.

Hostetler serves on a panel of experts for the Harmony Institute, a non-profit organization advising the community’s developer, Birchwood Acres Limited Partnership, a commercial housing development firm based in St. Cloud. The Harmony Institute promotes beneficial relationships between people, animals and the natural environment, he said. The community was named after the Harmony Institute.

“Birchwood Acres wants Harmony to be different from other planned communities,” Hostetler said. “So they’ve allowed the institute to guide many decisions. We’re emphasizing two ideas — interaction between people and nature, and limited environmental impact.”

He said about 70 percent of the property will remain undeveloped, and Birchwood Acres will refrain from clearing wooded areas, draining wetlands or building homes on the property’s two lakes. All housing will be constructed on former pastureland cleared by a previous owner.

“By proceeding in this way, the developer will preserve wildlife habitat and help residents feel closer to the land,” Hostetler said. “We’ve also created amenities and recreational features to promote those goals.”

Hostetler is designing a wildlife education project that will use information kiosks and a Web site to encourage Harmony residents to observe and monitor local wildlife. He said scientists will conduct long-term environmental research at Harmony, relying partly on data contributed by residents.

To promote pet ownership, the community will feature dog parks and the Harmony Institute will offer a “pet concierge” service to assist with feeding and other responsibilities when owners are unavailable, said Martha Lentz, Harmony Institute chairwoman. The institute will launch programs at Harmony including several animal-related charities and a camp for physically or emotionally challenged children.

“The developer granted 100 acres to the Harmony Institute as a base of operations within the community,” Lentz said. “We’ll maintain offices there and create a 20-acre academic center, the Albert Schweitzer Campus, named after the famous physician and humanitarian. Ultimately, we want to develop an accredited four-year college program on the campus.”

Eleanor Foerste, a natural resources agent with UF’s Osceola County Extension Service, said area extension agents currently educate Central Florida residents on conservation and resource management and will do so at Harmony. Agents may create programs to educate Harmony residents on tree canopy cover, tree protection, fertilizer use, storm water management, wildlife issues and other topics.

Foerste said she hopes UF extension also can assist Harmony with energy conservation issues. For several years, Foerste and other UF personnel have developed and presented energy education workshops for home buyers and builders. The builders’ workshop, “Build Green and Profit,” has already drawn interest from Harmony’s developer.

“We plan to have an ongoing relationship with Harmony,” Foerste said. “Extension puts people and resources together, so we expect to get questions from other developers about what worked for Harmony. I hope we have a lot to tell them, because this community could bring significant, positive changes to the Central Florida housing industry.”

James Lentz, general partner of Birchwood Acres Limited Partnership, said he hopes other developers will adopt Harmony’s approach, but realizes it won’t happen unless the community is profitable.

“Profit drives the industry, there’s no getting around it,” Lentz said. “But I think Harmony will succeed. Many home buyers want a strong interaction with nature, and we offer them something unique.”

James Lentz co-founded the Harmony Institute in 1996 with his wife, Martha. The Harmony community is the first project the institute has been involved with, he said.

“The institute’s activities will not be limited to advising developers,” he said. “But this seemed like an ideal project, in terms of the challenges and benefits it offered.”

Pierce Jones, a UF energy specialist, said the university benefits from its association with Harmony. Jones and Mark Hostetler are the only UF/IFAS representatives on the Harmony Institute’s panel of experts, which contains 12 scientists and educators from around the nation.

“The Harmony Institute spent a long time selecting people with expertise specific to the issues involved with the development,” he said. “It’s fairly unusual for a group of academics to have so much input designing such a large community, so this is a valuable learning opportunity.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The wildlife monitoring Web site mentioned in this news release can be found at



Posted: July 6, 2001

Category: UF/IFAS

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