The owners of Serosun Farms in Kane County laid low during the recession.
San Diego-based developer John DeWald and his sister, Jane Strickland, had spent years laying the groundwork for their innovative Serosun Farms project, located between Huntley, Hampshire and Burlington. However, they hadn't actually broken ground when the recession hit.
So DeWald and Strickland hibernated until late 2013 when a financial "spring" seemed imminent and they picked up where they left off four years earlier, ramping up operations once again.
A new model, which is also a Healthy Homes demonstration house, is under construction and work should soon begin on the road leading to the first 30 homesites.
Serosun Farms is a working, 410-acre organic farm and equestrian center. It will eventually include 114 custom country estates, restored prairies, recreational trails, gardens and parks, a nature center, a fishing pond, limited retail structures and a farmers market building, as well.
And the mixed-use community is being entirely built in a sustainable, environmentally responsible manner, DeWald said, complete with composting and mulching programs, LEED green-building design; utilization of solar, wind and geothermal energy; wildlife habitat management; soil, water and other resource conservation; and innovative use of land.
"My sister, Jane, moved out to the farm in 2000 because she wanted a place for her horses," DeWald said. "About five years later she realized that the suburbs were coming fast and she really didn't want high-density development across from her farm. So she approached me about what she could do.
"After studying the problem, we decided to make a pre-emptive strike by building a development that would preserve the beauty around the farm and also be a place where we could encourage sustainable practices and ideas," he said. "We started buying up farmland around her farm and, now that the recession is finally over, we are about ready to launch Serosun Farms."
DeWald grew up in For Wayne, Indiana, and moved to San Diego in the mid-1980s after graduating from Purdue University with a degree in civil engineering, chemistry and biology.
Over the years he managed environmental labs and engineering groups and also spent time managing a software engineering company. In 2000 he and his partner, Scott Kelly, formed John DeWald and Associates, a development firm specializing in developing innovative lifestyle communities like Pacific Station, a mixed-use project near the train station and beach in Encinitas, California.
Until now, all of their company's projects have been concentrated in southern California.
"We focus on knowing the people, politics and flavor of the community we are building in, so that is why we try to consistently build in one area," he said.
That is also why the partners have spent so many years preparing to build Serosun Farms by getting to know the Kane County community, researching sustainable manufacturers and contractors and structuring their financing to weather whatever economic storm may come.
What will it be like to live at Serosun Farms?
"We expect Serosun Farms to appeal to four groups of buyers -- the equestrian group who want to board their horses near their home, professional families who want to let their children live in the country, those who are approaching retirement and want a quick country getaway until that time, and those who live in the city or suburbs and want a second, country retreat.
"We have had more than 1,000 visitors to Serosun Farms over the past few years and they have borne out our expectations. They largely fall into those expected demographic groups. And they have told us the real appeal of Serosun Farms to them is the casual, country lifestyle. Some want to be integrally involved with the farm and the rest just want to be able to experience it from the comfort of their front porch."
All of the custom homes at Serosun Farms will be situated on one-acre lots, clustered in the middle of the property, DeWald said. When residents look out their back windows they will see farmland, prairie or woods. Lots cost around $300,000 each and with a home included, the entire package will range from $700,000 to $2 million.
"Homeowners will be able to enjoy the benefits of living on a 400-acre farm without all of the work involved," he said.
What type of homes do you envision being built there?
"We have retained four master builders -- Weiss Construction from Elgin, Embassy Construction from Hampshire, Southhampton Builders from St. Charles and JD Architecture and Construction from Naperville."
DeWald says he expects the homes built at Serosun Farms to be leading edge, high-performance and sustainable homes.
"People today realize they don't need a huge home, but they want a well-designed home with good quality technology and they want it to be big enough for the children to come home for the holidays.
"If anything, green technology has become even more mainstream in the past few years. McGraw-Hill predicts that within a few years, 30 percent of all new homes built in this country will be green and Chicago is a very green-thinking city. We have had numerous sophisticated conversations with our visitors. They already know all about green technology."
Alternative energy also helps homeowners "fix" their utility costs into the future, which is particularly important for retirees who are facing living on an income that does not increase annually, DeWald said.
What has been the local reaction to your project?
"Kane County has embraced us well and helped us. They even created a whole new zoning land use specifically for us. They see this type of project as a great way to preserve agriculture at the edge of the suburbs. That is what Serosun Farms actually is -- an agricultural preservation project."
DeWald believes this zoning approach is the first in the country to promote "civic agriculture" and Serosun Farms is the first development under Kane County's new 2030 plan for promoting agricultural preservation and local farming at the suburban edge.
"Our idea is to preserve agriculture through subsidizing the open farmland by charging more than normal for adjoining lots. This gives local farmers an 'out' whereby they can leave a legacy by having a significant portion of their land remain a farm, but they can also get a good deal of the value out of their land, which they need to send their kids to college and just to live."
What else are you trying to accomplish with Serosun Farms?
"Less than 8 percent of what Illinois residents eat comes from Illinois and this is the greatest farmland in the country, so we want to prove we can create truly local food by maintaining farms on the edge of the suburbs."
This year, the farm is producing hay, poultry, eggs and vegetables. The hay production is being run by DeWald's "partner farmers." Eventually, owners plan to produce meats and cheeses, as well as baked goods, on the farm, which would be sold from the permanent farmers market building to be built on the property next year.
Serosun Farms intends to "create a vibrant community that celebrates the beauty, natural elements, farming culture and history of the site," DeWald wrote on the Serosun Farms website. "It will serve as the model for transitional areas between suburbs and farmlands."
Where did this innovative idea originate?
"We combined ideas from other conservation developments around the country and are taking it to the next level. Our intent is to have a real working farm and functional equestrian center. We don't just want it to look pretty."
How close are the modern conveniences when residents want them?
"There is a small grocery store about three minutes away and the closest chain grocery store is six to eight minutes away. And once the improvements to I-90 are complete, it will be even easier to get into Chicago or to O'Hare."