Open Space Design is an alternative to the sprawling result of ordinary large lot, cul-de-sac developments that tend to obliterate any trace of the former character of the site. With Open Space Design, as large an amount of acreage within the dictates of economic viability is left undisturbed by new construction. This undisturbed acreage is used to protect areas of important natural or historic resources. The permanent open space is achieved by clustering new houses on small lots in a portion of the property. The remainder is kept as a communal space or is left as a wooded habitat or wetland. Trails offer access to these areas by residents. The result is a development that responds to the unique character of the site in a creative way.
The design process of an Open Space Design is four steps: Identify all potential open space areas and conservation or preservation areas; locate house sites, design road alignments and trails, draw in lot lines. This process avoids immediately chopping the property into individual units as is commonly done. It also puts the focus on the orientation of the houses rather than the street pattern.
In order to explain fully the concepts of Open Space Design, a hypothetical case study was developed. Although purely fictional, the Smith farm exhibits qualities that will be found in many historic Mecklenburg County farms. The first sketch illustrates the existing farmhouse near Smith Road along with two mature front yard trees. Historic outbuildings dot the area behind the house and include a chicken coop, garage, springhouse, dairy barn, and hay shed. A small creek cuts through the property which is wooded on its northern boundary. The pasture and hayfield make up a distinctive pattern that is important to understanding the work pattern on the small dairy farm during the early twentieth century.
The second sketch, entitled "Yield Plan," is done using the customary planning method of large lots. This indicates the number of new houses which can be built on the site. The third sketch is the "Open Space Design Plan" which illustrates how new houses can be arranged to preserve the farm complex, wooded habitat, and hay field. The hay field was given importance because of the pastoral view across the field towards the farmhouse when one is traveling west on Smith Road.
Most of the new houses are either tucked into the woods or face the small creek. Their intrusive appearance is minimized by the maintenance of the hay field. Also preserved are all of the outbuildings associated with the former dairy farm. The garage, chicken coop, and springhouse belong to the owner of the farmhouse while the hay shed and barn will be rehabilitated as a communal space and recreation center for residents. Abloom with summer wildflowers, the hay field should only be mown two or three times a season to keep the historic appearance. It will be an excellent picnic and play area. Trails will encircle the property through the woods, hay field, and along the creek.
Easements can be purchased or donated to a non-profit institution. The advantage of donating to a non-profit preservation organization is that the owner may claim a charitable contribution on their Federal and State Tax Return. Basically, an easement is the giving up of control over a certain portion of one's property. In buildings, a facade easement gives the holder control over an exterior face (usually the front) of the building. If the owner of an important historic building such as Hayes - Byrum Store in Steele Creek granted an easement on the facade to the Landmarks Commission, the facade would be assured of remaining unchanged. Another advantage to the owner of the store would be that they would be eligible for a tax re-evaluation. This re-evaluation would likely find the property of lesser value since the easement, granted in perpetuity, takes away control over part of the building from the owner. Another type of easement is a scenic easement. Similar to a transfer of development rights, the owner would effectively relinquish their right to develop their agricultural fields or other natural area.
Easements can be a highly effective technique since it is a compromise between full ownership (fee simple) and governmental land use controls like zoning. It has advantages for all parties involved and is an efficient use of a preservation organization's financial resources.
Options provide an excellent alternative when an easement cannot be obtained. For a small fee a private non-profit preservation organization or a local government preservation commission may obtain the right to purchase an important property when the owner decides to sell. An option will set the purchase price and specify a purchase deadline. In doing so, the owner is ensured of a buyer while the property is prevented from falling into the hands of an unsympathetic owner. The holder of the option will attempt to find their own buyer, since often the property is beyond their financial capability. Thus, the property will be developed in a thoughtful and sympathetic way. This is also an efficient use of the funds available to private and local government preservation organizations.
Similar to options is the right of first refusal. This provision is often put into deeds of properties rehabilitated by revolving funds. This helps ensure that the property continues to be owned by someone sympathetic to its historic character.