Early Golf Communities Pre-empted Rights, Provided New Aesthetic Order

American communities have a look and layout that can range from Vermont village to Midwestern river town to the low, stucco suburbs of the Southwest. Few factors affect a community’s form and appearance more than the degree of planning that went into it. Here in the land of the free, it’s discouraging to see what occurs when total freedom reigns in the construction of buildings and roads. No zoning and no planning are the ticket to an unsightly and chaotic locality.

For a glimpse of the most dramatic possible contrast to that squalor, we need to ride through the gates of an upscale, master-planned golf community. America’s earliest examples of the gated club community date to the 1960s and have settled comfortably into middle age. At most of them, the original developer has long since transferred ownership to a council of residents legally chartered as a Homeowners Association (HOA) or Property Owners Association (POA). Business models evolve, of course, and the communities being built nowadays often retain the services of the founding developer in a management role. Either way, the residents who populate the community eventually assume a vital role in its daily life.

The first adventurous souls who bought real estate in golf-centered enclaves may have felt like they were part of a utopian experiment. Today, that lifestyle is almost second nature to baby boomers—and even their Gen-X offspring. An affluent member-resident is fully at ease driving his golf cart down neighborhood streets and having his sundeck painted an HOA-approved color.

LESS FREE AND MORE LIVABLE:  Every new idea needs its pioneers, and golf communities are no exception. Charles E. Fraser, born into a prominent timber-industry family in 1929, became familiar in his youth with vast wooded tracts of land in outposts like Hilton Head, South Carolina. Considered the Edison of resort golf communities, Fraser [ pictured above ]had land-development instincts encoded in his DNA. He augmented that with a new conceptual framework for community planning that took shape during his years at Yale Law School. The essence of Fraser’s concept was the yielding of customary rights by individual property owners to an all-deciding developer—not an arrangement we Americans were used to, by any stretch.

Uniformity of homes and lots plus strictly mandated uses of common space were Fraser’s prime requirements. In return, the developer would set up conservation easements and build luxury amenities, not just roads and storm sewers. He was no half-hearted conservationist, either. For the sake of one massive, 300-year-old oak that still stands at the far end of the Harbour Town marina [photo left] at Sea Pines, Fraser reportedly re-engineered the entire facility. He kept his own counsel on such matters, lacking any textbook to consult. For precedent, Fraser might have looked to the carefully planned, railroad-owned town of Rancho Santa Fe, California. Or, with a grain of salt, to the factory-built Levittowns of the post-war Northeast.

Of the few community-building experiments that predated Fraser’s, John D. MacArthur’s authoring of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida was surely the boldest and most extensive. The city of Palm Beach Gardens, now fairway-filled and home to the Professional Golfers Association of America, could not have been seen on a map before 1959. That was the year that MacArthur, an insurance and real estate tycoon, began developing some 4,000 acres of cattle pasture near the southwestern coastline of Florida. His notion was to create a full-scale community where average Americans could live, work and recreate in contentment.

The highbrow philanthropy we now associate with the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation is posthumous, actually. In life, MacArthur was more intent on building communities (and promoting golf) than on bestowing “genius grants”—as the million-dollar MacArthur Fellowships are informally called. In 1964, with his community on its feet and thriving, MacArthur donated more than $2,000,000 to help the PGA create a new association headquarters and golf club (In 1972, the PGA moved from that property down the road to its present headquarters.)

In MacArthur’s invention of Palm Beach Gardens and in the community-creating that Fraser (and later, his acolytes) would do, there was clearly a streak of idealism. In some ways this desire for a better communal life in the New World dates all the way back to Brook Farm and America’s other 19th-century utopian communities. Whether or not these experiments inspired Charles Fraser, it’s clear he felt he could treat the land and its lot-buying occupants to something better than either had been accustomed to.

Fraser’s concept demanded a leap of faith among buyers. They had to give up personal options and trust in his vision. To this day, when you drive into the center of 5,000-acre Sea Pines Resort (they don’t use “Plantation” in the name anymore), you may notice a large, communal garden, divided by wooden fencing and blooming with vegetables, herbs and flowers. It’s actually the elegant solution to an early land-use problem—Fraser’s wealthy homeowners wanted to grow gardens in their yards, but his detailed codes and covenants prohibited them from doing so.

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