Branching out

When Judy and Larry Plegge were ready to downsize from their single-family home of 32 years, they were clear on what they didn't want. No stairs. No yard work. No buildings blocking their view.

They got none of that when they bought a fifth-floor condominium at The Preserve of Palatine. Instead, they got trees. The complex borders the Margreth Riemer Reservoir and its 91 acres of forest, water and open space. "From our balcony we see two ponds, and the trees are to the right," said Judy Plegge. "One of the ponds we can't see as well. It depends on how much rain we get. During the big rain in August, it was almost to the point where they are connected."

The view changes by season, and a year into the move, the Plegges have seen them all. Budding trees in the spring. The Palatine water tower, visible only after the leaves fall. Children sledding down the hill in winter. People walking their dogs and jogging the paths all year. "Everybody who walks into our unit, when we have the drapes open, says, 'Wow,' " said Judy Plegge.

Another Preserve homeowner, Pat Prochilo, frequently walks through the woods.

"There is always something you didn't see the day before, a different kind of shrub or animal or bird," she said. "I go there and time stands still a little bit."

For many homeowners, living in the midst of lush forest is a huge attraction. Trees are lovely to look at, and they're good for people and the environment. But buyers don't have to drive several counties away to find a piece of woodland. A number of new housing communities in the Chicago area are touting amenities by Mother Nature

The Preserve, an R. Franczyk & Associates development,has 94 condominiums in two towers, priced from $309,900.

"We always like to be in downtown areas, close to the Metra, which is important," said the Preserve's sales manager Katie O'Brien. "We were very happy to find this property. It's like having the best of both worlds, an urban feeling and being in the middle of nature."

"Intuitively, there is a perception of quality and maturity associated with communities that have a lot of trees," said Dan Lambe, vice president for programs at the National Arbor Day Foundation in Lincoln, Neb. "There are also many kinds of economic benefits and savings that go beyond the beauty and the songbirds."

He named a few: Trees remove globe-warming carbon dioxide from the air. They cut heating and air conditioning costs, boost property values and decrease selling time.

"Often in rural communities, you don't have to drive too far to tell which way is north," he said. "That's the side where the windbreak trees are planted."

Trees have a romantic appeal, said developer Ted Mazola of New West Realty.

"They symbolize peace, harmony, longevity, strength -- the types of things we strive for in our daily lives," he said. "And when it comes to property values, money does grow on trees. It's been estimated that having trees makes a property about 15 percent more valuable."

Living near the woods also can be good for a homeowner's mental well-being. Mind, a London-based mental health agency, calls it ecotherapy.

In a research study conducted by the agency earlier this year, 71 percent of the participants said they felt less depressed after taking a walk in a country park, while 45 percent felt less depressed after walking through an indoor shopping center. Ninety percent had increased self-esteem after the country walk.

"It becomes a sanctuary when you move into a community where there is preservation of trees and wetland," said Janey Amidei, vice president of sales and marketing for Kirk Homes. "You don't have to get into the car to go to the health club. You've got this natural beauty, and you can push the baby in the stroller or ride your bike or just walk."

A decade or two ago, developers routinely cut down all the trees, mowed down the corn field, prairie and savanna and flattened the land with giant earth movers before erecting subdivisions and locating streets. Today they are more likely to build around the trees and plant more trees rather than tear through them, said Lambe.

"One reason is that many developers genuinely have an environmental conscience," he said. "Another is that smarter developers are realizing that most homeowners aren't interested in cookie-cutter neighborhoods, especially when there is an option of healthy, mature trees nearby."

New West is building Thatcher Woods, a community of 60 condominiums in two towers and 18 town homes surrounded by Thatcher Woods Forest Preserves in Melrose Park. The 300-acre natural area includes flood plain forest, upland forest, savanna and prairie, and it straddles the Des Plaines River. Depending on the floor, balconies and patios peer into the woods or over the trees. Units are priced from $419,900.

"When you are looking out your balcony on floors six through 10, you think you are in Vermont," said Mazola. "All you see are treetops to the south and east, until you see downtown."

Jim Weier feels like he lives in the country since moving into his townhome at The Residences at Shelburne Farms in Winfield. The feeling balances out the bustle of his weekday commute to the Chicago Loop, he said.

"It's a very pastoral setting," he said. "I don't see a strip mall. I don't see a gas station. I see my development and the trees."

Shelburne Farms is surrounded by the 360-acre Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve, once the home and burial grounds of prehistoric Native Americans. The community, built by Kimball Hill Homes, has 191 townhouses and 64 condominiums, priced from $294,990.

Human residents aren't the only ones enjoying woodland serenity. They share the setting, and sometimes their homes, with critters. Some are cute and some aren't. Some smell better than others.

Near Batavia's downtown, Daphne Ritchie's home is bordered by forest on two sides. Coyotes, raccoons, skunks, squirrels and feral cats and an occasional deer regularly pass through her yard and gardens, often pausing to dine on whatever seems appealing. An avian choir awakens the household before dawn each morning.

"We've had snakes and frogs in the window wells," she said. "This time of year the mice want to get warm. They can get in through a crack the width of a pencil."

Sherm Fields, president of Wauconda-based Acres Group landscaping company, often is called upon to remediate wildlife damage to trees and turf. Skunks and raccoons dig up grass as they hunt for grubs. Deer rub their antlers against tree trunks to polish them, and tear up the bark in the process.

"We have to wrap Tyvek around trees to prevent damage," he said. "It's a real hassle."

Hungry rabbits are a consistent problem in many communities, he said.

But not in Ritchie's yard. That's because of the coyotes.

"What I like the most about my yard is I'm still in town and close to everything, but I have that feeling of being in the country and away from everything," she said. "And I love the wildlife. This summer we had a mother skunk and three little ones. We would sit outside at night, very quietly, of course, and watch them play like kittens. They were just adorable."

And the cicadas?

"It really depends on where you are," said Mazola. "They weren't too bad at Thatcher Woods. It's only once every 17 years."

At Apple Creek Estates in Woodstock, developer Kirk Homes is preserving more than one-third of the 559 acres as open space. Additional amenities, natural and enhanced, include groves of mature trees, 11 ponds and the namesake Apple Creek, plus seven miles of bike paths and three parks.

The community has 746 single-family homes and 370 townhomes, priced from the low $170,000s.

"The trees are beautiful and you see the seasons change -- and you do have to get out the rake," said Amidei. "But I think people would rather do that and have the shade and enjoy watching the squirrels and chipmunks go up and down the trees than not have them at all."

Near forest preserves

Here is a sampling of other wooded developments in the Chicago area:

*Trafalgar Woods, Morton Grove. The Lennar-built community offers 115 townhomes priced from $387,000, and is bordered on two sides by the Frank Bobrytzke Forest Preserve near the Miami Woods.

*Edgebrook Glen, Chicago. C.A. Development is building 64 single-family homes along the western border of the Indian Woods Forest Preserve on the Far Northwest Side. Prices start at $699,900.

*The Estates of Verona Ridge, Aurora. The community of 148 single-family homes sits adjacent to 500 acres of Kane County forest preserve. Each site overlooks open space and conservancy areas. Built by Orleans Homebuilders, homes are priced from the mid-$400,000s.

*The Woods at Countryside, Palatine. A 719-unit condominium conversion sprawls on 52 rolling, landscaped acres and is within walking distance to the Deer Grove Forest Preserve. Units are priced from $149,900

*Amberley Woods Condominiums, Lake Forest. Built on the former Blithefield Estate by Residential Homes of America, 90 condominiums in two four-story buildings are wrapped in natural forest.

Starting prices are in the low $500,000s.