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By Vinton Murray |

If variety is truly the spice of life, then those in search of a new home in the Dallas-Fort Worth area face a feisty feast. With planned communities in every direction and a high-rise condominium slated for the middle of midtown, the options and prices are numerous. They can buy property in or out of the city, on hills or in a skyscraper, beside a lake or on a golf course.

Planned communities, or master-planned communities as they are sometimes called, have been in the area since the early ’80s. At that time the influx of corporations moving to DFW was making quality housing scarce everywhere, particularly in North Dallas. “We were outgrowing Piano. but to develop the outer areas like MeKinney and Frisco, we knew we needed to offer more than the traditional subdivisions.” explains Bruce Smith, general manager of Starwood in Frisco. Smith, who has collaborated on several communities and golf courses, including Las Colinas and Stonebriar, notes, “We knew that focusing on design and amenities would create more than a community-it would create a lifestyle. And that would make the difference.”

“Originally, developers created these communities as protection in situations where there was no zoning.” adds Rick Croteau, a senior vice president of Westbrook Communities and general manager of Stonebridge Ranch in McKinney and Timarron in Southlake. “In order to create the environment that the builder or developer thought was necessary to be successful, rules had to be created to maintain the community standards. It gives a community a defined reason for being.”

Highland Shores on Lake Lewisville was among the first to be developed in the Dallas area and the only one of that early group to survive. “We persevered,” says Jim Pabich. development manager of the property, “because we knew that the attraction of the master-planned community is ownership of continuity- control of one’s destiny.” With 1,000 acres and 1.400 homes already completed, the development just opened an area call The Pointe with 65 estate-size lots and dramatic views of the lake. “Throughout this property, we offer a neighborhood with trees, interesting topography, very little traffic, and virtually no crime.” And, according to Pabich, “people have a say in their community.”

In the last 15 years, numerous communities, with varying degrees of a master plan, have taken root. Nine were reviewed for this story, including Hidden Lakes Ranch. Highland Shores. Hollytree, Kings Gate, Lake Ridge. Starwood, Stonebridge, Timarron, and The Mayfair at Turtle Creek, Although distinct in size, geography, and design, they share some basic characteristics:

●Most of the communities have a wide range of lot sizes, usually from a quarter of an acre to an acre, with a few properties offering sites around three acres.

●Home prices range from the low $100s to $1.5 million, with the average price ranging from $265.000 to $500,000. Kings Gate, the gated estate community in West Piano, is the exception, with homes beginning at $1 million,

●The majority of planned community owners are the developers, most of whom do not aspire to be in the real estate business. Generally, a builder buys the land from the developer and sells to the homeowner, but there are exceptions. Starwood and Properties of the Southwest, which owns Hidden Lakes Ranch and Lake Ridge, sell home sites directly to the buyer.

●Most developments have a list of preferred builders, but if you want to use someone not on the list, the developer usually will review the builder’s credentials and architectural plans to see if they meet the community’s criteria.

●Pets are usually welcome in planned communities: Cats and dogs are acceptable everywhere, and horses are welcome at Hidden Lakes Ranch.

Despite similar outlines and business practices, the communities vary widely in size, terrain, and personality.

●Land sizes of the properties range from elegant Hollytree, which sits on 460 acres in Tyler, to the massive 6,300 acres of Stonebridge Ranch.

●Water views and activities are available at many of the developments. including Hidden Lakes Ranch, which has a number of lakes well-stocked for fishing; Highland Shores on Lake Lewisville; Lake Ridge on Joe Pool Lake; and Hollytree, which otters a 60-slip marina and club on Lake Tyler.

● Gently sloping hills and more challenging terrain rarely associated with the Dallas urban cityscape are prevalent at Kings Gate, Hidden Lakes, Highland Shores. Lake Ridge, and Starwood, where a creek runs through land that was originally part of historic Preston Trail.

Because of the irregular and sloping home sites, buyers are able to build split-level homes and have “walk-out” basements, both rare entities in Dallas. “Houses on this kind of property have to be designed to fit the land’s contour,” says Pabich. “That means you never have two houses that are alike.”

Natural settings also offer the tranquillity that one rarely associates with suburban living. Kings Gate, an exclusive, gated community in West Piano, is located on one of the highest points in Collin County and affords its residents “an unequaled peace of mind,” says one resident. ’The geography enhances the elegance of living in a community like this. We have gorgeous trees and hills, and we’re only minutes from Dallas. It’s ideal.”

Another community with inspiring vistas is Lake Ridge in Cedar Hill, which recently opened a gated section on the highest point in Dallas County. With 53 lots on a wooded bluff, it offers spectacular views from Joe Pool Lake to the Fort Worth skyline.

“Geography is our blessing, but amenities are the life blood of many of the master-planned communities,” says one developer. “They not only attract our residents to us, but die larger communities can enjoy the facilities and our homeowners benefit from that.” Hiking and biking trails and parks with picnic tables and grills are available at most sites.

Stonebridge. Timarron, and Hollytree offer a total of 72 holes of golf, and Lake Ridge is adjacent to Tangle Ridge Golf Club, which was recently rated one of the top two courses in the Dallas-Fort Worth area by Golf Digest Magazine. In addition to regular play, most courses sponsor tournaments, which attract players and spectators from throughout the state. One such tournament is the annual Azalea at Hollytree. Players must be at least 25 and have a handicap under five. Golfers from the top 50 clubs in Texas have participated in the 14-year-old tournament.

Country clubs are also a valuable feature for many of the communities. In addition to golf, the clubs often offer swimming pools, tennis courts, and eating facilities. Hollytree’s president and general partner Tom Barber took over the role of managing the Hollytree Country Club when he felt he could improve performance and the bottom line of his investment. In three years, the 66-year-old engineer, who refers to Hollytree as “the best living bargain in the country,” took it from SunAmerica Inc., the luxury high-rise condominium lower has been described as “the ultimate cocoon.” Residents will have concierge and porter service, a skydeck, skyclub. health club, pool, and spa. in addition to sophisticated security and communications systems with intra and internet capabilities.

The 23-story building, located across the street from Lee Park between Lemmon and Welbom. will have 120 suites, six penthouse suites, and five townhouses, ranging in price from $177,000 to $1.2 million. Although construction for the $60 million building doesn’t begin until March and won’t be ready for occupancy until the fail of 1999, half of the building was sold within six weeks of going on the market this past October.

The highest of high-tech marketing tools provides potential owners with a three-dimensional “virtual tour” of the building, its gardens, and six model suites in the building’s on-site marketing center. “People can actually see the views of downtown and the Park Cities, and they can see how the rooms will look and might be furnished.” comments marketing expert Cliff Bowman.

One of the most interesting aspects of these communities is the demographics of the buyers. The May-fair, and other similar sites, has attracted 75 percent of its buyers from Dallas and Ft. Worth. Frequently referred to as “edge” cities, McKinney, Frisco, Lewisville, and other areas on the Dallas perimeter, are attracting primarily new residents.

Corporate relocation accounts for 70 percent of the business at Stone-bridge. Highland Shores, and Starwood. “The relocation buyer is a very studied, serious buyer,” says Star-wood’s Bruce Smith. ’They take their time and there is very little buying on impulse.” According to sales and product manager Nancy Hardwick, Lake Ridge attracts a lot of buyers from Arlington. “People have found they can come here with hills, the lake, and golf and basically live a vacation,” she says.

Most developers report a broad cross section of ages and stages. “We’ve got it all,” says Smith, “families, two-income couples with children, empty-nesters (couples whose children have “flown the coop”), never-nesters (couples without children), and retired people. It’s great; it reflects society.”

Hollytree. which is an-hour-and-a-half drive from Dallas, is benefiting from those who work from home. “With the home office, people have found that they can live almost anywhere and still do their jobs. Pilots and manufacturer’s reps love this life,” says Barber. “You get all the advantages of a small town (80,000 population) and this development combined with the occasional trip to Dallas or wherever.”

Whether it’s living in Tyler, Piano, McKinney, Frisco. Gunter, Cedar Hill. Southlake. Piano, or in the middle of Dallas, the challenge for potential dwellers of planned communities is to figure out which combination of terrain, amenities, views, and location fits their dreams and needs. The exciting part is that if you want a different day-to-day lifestyle in or near Dallas, a wide variety of options is out there for the taking.

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