Equine Living

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Ann Miles has built a solid career in construction, specializing in custom homes and equestrian facilities. In 1995, she decided to combine her two specialties to create Sarah’s Way, a residential community for horse lovers.

Located in rural Newton, N.H., Sarah’s Way sits on 50 acres and includes eight custom home sites that surround a main barn, carriage house, indoor and outdoor arenas, and spacious paddocks. The community, a 45-minute drive north of Boston, Mass., is woven together with riding trails that meander through fields of mountain laurel and wild blueberries.

What Miles has developed in the sleepy town of Newton is a business model that is cropping up across the United States. “Equestrian communities” come in all shapes and sizes, but the common denominator is that these private housing developments are becoming a popular refuge for horse enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.

Life-long horse owner and competitive dressage rider Jennifer Donovan founded Equestrian Services LLC, based in Annapolis, Md., with her husband, Michael, a landscape designer and contractor. The firm has grown into an equine land planning/landscape architecture business providing a wide range of services for equestrian-oriented projects, from feasibility and compliance studies to planning, programming and design.

“We work with clients around the nation and track various trends through print media and the Internet. Equestrian communities are definitely a hot market,” she says. “I’d say that traditionally the equestrian element was an afterthought in most planned residential communities—they were used as marketing devices and were often planned and operated poorly—but now developers are getting savvy and realize their clientele are educated equestrians who are demanding a quality product.”

Donovan says that championship golf courses have enjoyed center stage in planned communities for years. But now the market is saturated with courses, and developers are angling for a new concept. For many, equestrian communities are the answer.

“Studies show that less than 20 percent of people who move to planned communities with championship golf courses actually play the game. The majority want the community experience but also want the bonus of open space,” Donovan says.

According to Donovan, developers are realizing that equestrian facilities cost a fraction of what it takes to install and maintain a golf course. “You’re working with the land in a low impact way—leaving it in its natural state instead of sculpting it into something contrived,” she says. “Golf has also traditionally been an adult activity, while an equestrian amenity can be for the whole family.”

Northern Florida and the Carolinas are two hot areas for these developments, Donovan says, noting that Florida cities like Jacksonville, Lake City and Gainesville are becoming “the next Wellington and Ocala”—two traditional hotspots for all things equestrian that now are busting at the seams with overpriced real estate and limited acreage for expansion.

Asheville, N.C., real estate agent Sheelah Clarkson agrees that equestrian communities are flourishing in her area. Her agency specializes in equestrian properties. She says several farm owners are packaging their properties as equestrian communities to increase curb appeal when it comes time to sell.

���In many of these cases, the barns used to be on the outskirts of town, but now they’re surrounded by development and the land value has risen considerably,” she says. “I have a client who was having a hard time selling his equestrian facility with 60 acres, because it was valued at $2 million. Most horse people looking to buy can’t make those numbers work for a barn and an indoor area.”

Clarkson says with the help of a land planner, the farm has been divided into six home lots—all of which will have access to the existing barn and indoor arena—and she’s helping the seller promote the farm as an equestrian community.

“Some landowners wanting to sell are having to consider what works for the horses and what will sell,” Clarkson says. “If they have good infrastructure, they often can recapture the value that’s in the land [by going this route]. Our agency specializes in deals that preserve open land. Hopefully by doing this, we can keep some of these farms from becoming shopping malls.”

Though admittedly not an equestrian, North Carolina textile mill owner Travis Oates is blazing trails in Polk County with the construction of The Farms at Mill Springs. The soon-to-be equestrian community features 31 home sites on a total of 574 acres, all of which will be connected by a system of trails. In March 2005, Oates purchased the acreage as an investment. He says the real estate market and the property’s location influenced his decision to turn the acreage into an equestrian community.

“We’re about an hour and a half west of Charlotte, N.C.,” he says. “We’re attracting a lot of retirees and people seeking summer homes. It’s a really beautiful area. And the equestrian community is huge in Polk County.”

Though a grand opening date is yet to be determined, Oates says his real estate agent already has sold several of the 31 lots. He rallied the assistance of an experienced land planner to map out the locations for each home site. Now, the planner is in the process of designating the road and trail systems.

“I’ve surrounded myself with knowledgeable people who not only have my best interest in mind, but also the best interest of the homeowners who will live here and of the community at large,” Oates says. “Ultimately, if all three parties are happy, then I consider it a successful investment.”

THREE WAYS TO PROCEED

There are three basic types of equestrian communities, but an unlimited number of ways to orchestrate the deal when it comes down to financing, partnerships and the original landowner’s level of involvement. Donovan strongly suggests that landowners give the idea a considerable amount of thought before moving forward.

In the first model, houses are built around a central barn, which provides boarding and horse care services for community residents. The second type of community encompasses a cluster of mini “farmettes” that often are connected by riding trails. In this model, residences keep their horses on their own property. Lastly, some equestrian communities offer a combination of the two models, giving residents the option of keeping their horses at a community barn or on their private property.

Miles of Sarah’s Way advises landowners and stable owners thinking of packaging their farms as equestrian communities to consider how the various business models will impact their livelihood.

“They need to come to terms with the fact that things won’t be the same,” she says. “And if the deal isn’t structured right, you’ll lose control of what you have. Once you have other investors, lawyers, engineers and developers involved, it’s really hard to say, ‘This must stay the way it is.’”

Donovan says the seller can reduce some of the risk by subdividing around the equestrian facilities, so ownership can be retained. Furthermore, if landowners elect to make their facilities exclusive to community members, they can sometimes (depending on housing units) charge a small subsidy akin to a homeowner’s association fee.

Miles says Sarah’s Way charges a $100 monthly fee for access to the equestrian facilities. À la carte services are also available for routine vaccines, dental care, farrier services and boarding.

“Stable management by itself is a marginally profitable business, but if you do this type of project the right way, you can reap the rewards,” says Raj Bhatia, founder of Manhattan, N.Y.-based Renwick Real Estate LLC and owner of Willow Creek Estates, a $40 million equestrian community under development in Southbury, Conn.

In 2000, Bhatia bought Rikers Farm, a former quarter horse breeding farm. “It just made financial sense to preserve the farm and develop around it,” Bhatia says. “As a developer, you get a premium for your lots because you’re offering the package of living on a horse farm.”

Rikers Farm, which is about 1 hour and 15 minutes outside of Manhattan, is transforming into a premier hunter/jumper training facility that spans 50 acres. The remaining 50-plus acres will be used to build 25 homes in the $1.5 million and up price range. Planned community amenities include two tennis courts and a community wine cellar with scheduled tastings. Bhatia also plans to renovate an old silo into a clubhouse with a common area and guest quarters.

Bhatia says Willow Creek Estates is garnering many inquiries, even though the ground breaking for the home sites isn’t until this Fall. He says the interest is divided equally among equestrian enthusiasts and those who are simply intrigued by the whole “Ralph Lauren lifestyle.”

“[The development] is a way to sell the farm without selling the farm,” Bhatia says. “If you do it right, the horses have precedence over everything. It’s a win-win.”

Yet, Donovan warns that all investments involve a certain amount of risk, and landowners need to proceed with caution.

“There are a hundred different ways to put together a deal; it’s a very complicated process and the stakes can be high,” Donovan says. “You can lose money or lose control of your farm. People should keep in mind that the housing market is leveling out, there is a lot of competition for these types of development, interest rates are inching up, and rural areas aren’t necessarily recession proof. Real estate success is ultimately about location.”

The economy isn’t the only influential factor. At the end of the day, it’s about what the consumer wants. While Sarah’s Way continues to attract a wide cross-section of residents—from empty nesters to young families with children—Miles admits her community receives mixed responses from horse people.

“Moving into an equestrian community with a central barn and relinquishing the management of your horse is a big deal for some people,” she says. “Then again, you have others who say, ‘I am 65 and I am tired of fences breaking. I’d like to be able to get away without worrying about my horse.’”

Clarkson, the real estate agent from North Carolina, says she deals mainly with horse people, and the consumers in her market prefer individual farms connected by trail systems. “The developments that are most attractive are those with good pastures, good infrastructure in terms of the trail systems, and solid regulations on fencing so that the trails can go in between the farms,” she says. “The idea of clubhouses and swimming pools isn’t such a big thing. If they want a pool, they’ll put one in their backyard.”

However, Donovan says adding amenities that speak to diverse interests can broaden the community’s appeal. “It’s a trend we call ‘new ruralism,’” she says. “People are stressed and they want to reconnect with nature and are drawn to the idea of a simpler time. They want visual beauty and outdoor recreation, but they want their high-speed Internet, gourmet coffee and restaurants, too.”

Pam Murray, an equestrian real estate specialist in Eldorado Hills, Calif., says equestrian communities are the way the buyers are going out West. “Horse people like to be around horse people,” says Murray, who also rides horses and lives in Greenstone Country, an equestrian community in Placerville, just east of Sacramento. “They also like the fact that their neighbors are equestrians who can care for their horses when they are away.

“We have probably half a dozen equestrian communities within a 30-mile radius. People want that big country feel, but they still want neighbors. With so many riding trails and open spaces disappearing, equestrian communities are really flourishing out here.”