Good Gates, Good Neighbors?

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Gary and Eileen Smith were ready for a change.

The couple had had enough of taking care of their large Stony Brook home – everything from making sure the snow was shoveled to calling a service crew each year for the pool and Jacuzzi. Plus, with a vacation home in Florida, they wanted to come and go as they pleased, without worrying about the upkeep or security of their Long Island house.

So two years ago, they purchased a three-bedroom, 2½-bath condominium in a gated community called Country Pointe at Smithtown, along Middle Country Road. “We have all the good stuff – peace, privacy, security, a pool and a clubhouse,” said Gary Smith, 54, an attorney. “And none of the headaches of home ownership.”

Like the Smiths, a growing number of local homebuyers are embracing the aura, amenities and security that gated communities offer. They appeal to the strong market of upscale residents on Long Island and in Queens who want an active country club environment or Boca Raton retirement lifestyle, depending on their stage of family life. Prices range from $150,000 for a modest three-bedroom, 2½-bath condominium to more than $1 million for a luxurious single-family house.

With their gatehouse guards or electronic security devices, tennis courts, swimming pools, clubhouse facilities and, in some instances, golf courses, these enclaves have helped redefine housing developments as “lifestyle communities.” “The gate is the icing on the cake,” said Susan Barbash, a partner in McGovern-Barbash Associates, the developer of The Villages at Huntington and the adjacent Villages West, between Old Country and Pinelawn roads, which breaks ground this fall.

While there are no hard statistics, the region has sprouted dozens of gated communities in the past 25 years, with a proliferation of new ones in recent years – and plenty more in the works. “More gated communities are coming onstream than not-gated communities,” said Charles Mancini, managing director of the Long Island division of Spectrum Skanska, a Westchester-based firm. “Developers are reacting to what the market wants, and the marketplace favors gated communities.”

But such developments are not without their critics, who point to the gate, itself, as a symbol of elitism and exclusivity. “They’re antithetical to community and create a fortress, members-only mentality that basically says to the rest of the world: ‘Keep out,'” said Ronald Stein, president of Vision Long Island, a nonprofit group that advocates “smart-growth” practices as well as community training and involvement.

Shellie Williams, development director at Sustainable Long Island, another smart-growth advocacy organization, said a gated community does a disservice to its residents. “They are isolated from the community that they live in,” Williams said.

On the other hand, Stein added, there are elements in the gated developments, such as community centers, public spaces and “narrower, more pedestrian- friendly” streets that do foster a sense of community.

Whatever their attraction, gated communities – in the approval process, under construction or recently completed – have grown in number each year. A sampling: The Beechwood Organization’s Country Pointe at Dix Hills, Country Pointe at Smithtown North and Country Pointe at Miller Place; Klein & Eversoll’s Timber Ridge at Leisure Glen in Ridge and Timber Ridge at the Village of Mount Sinai; Island Estates’ Sweet Hollow Farms in Melville and Villas on Manhasset Bay; Spectrum Skanska’s The Legends at Half Hollow in Dix Hills; The Holiday Organization’s The Hamlet Willow Creek in Mount Sinai, Hamlet Woods at St. James, Hamlet Estates at Kirby Hill in Muttontown and Hamlet at Olde Oyster Bay; and The Klar Organization’s Willow Wood at East Setauket and The Waterways at Moriches.

In addition, there are several gated rental enclaves, including Avalon Bay in Melville, and more planned, such as Birchwood Park Homes’ The Muse at Spring Lake in Middle Island.

In many instances, gated communities are fashioned as condominiums or homeowners associations. Residents generally pay monthly common charges that cover everything from the maintenance of the grounds to the guard service at the gatehouse. Depending on the size of the development, range of services and whether the enclave offers country-club activities, common fees are $100 to $600 a month.

For many homeowners, though, the initial lure of a gated community is exactly that – the gate and guard that give the enclave its sense of security. In particular, retirees and empty-nesters say they are drawn to the developments’ lifestyle, which enables them to take vacations without worrying about the safety of their home or its maintenance.

With their children grown, Irene Moore, a college program director, and her retired husband, Walter, sold the house they had owned for 30 years in Huntington and moved last year to Highview at Huntington, a gated condominium community. With an eye toward her own retirement, Moore wanted a home that required less maintenance while giving them more freedom to travel. “When you have a house, you need a baby-sitter for it,” she said. “But, with the security, I can lock my door and just go.”

Folks with young children also are attracted to the security that gated communities offer. “You don’t have to worry too much about traffic,” said Brian Sundberg, 35, a teacher who moved two years ago with his wife, Alicia, and two young children to The Villages of Huntington. “And for trick-or-treating, it’s nice knowing you’re in a private community and that you know your neighbors.”

RJ Singh, 36, has been living since June in a two-family townhouse he purchased in Country Pointe at Alley Pond in Queens Village. Singh said he was drawn to the enclave’s sense of privacy as well as his home’s potential as an investment property. “Tenants like the fact that they are in their own private sanctuary – with no street element to be bothered with,” said Singh, who sells business security software.

While their appeal bridges many age groups, many gated communities are restricted to 55- and- over couples. According to developers, the age restriction is usually the result of pressure from municipalities that welcome the new residents’ tax revenues but don’t want more children in their school system. “Builders are stuck building senior housing because that’s what gets approved,” said Lennard Axinn, a partner in Island Estates.

Yet age-restricted communities can wind up being a Catch-22 for school districts, other developers say. Residents 55 and older may represent additional tax revenues for the municipalities but, without a vested interest in the local schools, they may have “less interest in the quality of the school district,” Mancini said. “The logical step forward is that there’s a tendency for them to vote down budgets.”

Still, with baby boomers graying, the region’s gated communities may provide anchors to keep them from relocating to retirement communities in other parts of the country, said Lee Koppelman, executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board. “For those people who still have family on Long Island and want to stay on Long Island, instead of going to California, Florida or Scottsdale [Ariz.], they can go into one of these communities and have everything done for them,” Koppelman said.

Although detractors criticize the age-restricted community for its homogeneity, Gloria Littell, 66, and her husband, Bill, 69, don’t have a problem with it. Since moving three years ago to The Waterways at Moriches, an age-restricted condominium development, Littell said she hasn’t missed living in a mixed-age community. Gloria Littell says she gets her kid-fix from her own grandchildren, and “a lot of homeowners have their grandchildren coming for visits.”

At the same time, living in the age-restricted community has enriched the couple’s retirement years, she said, providing them with an active social life as well as a new pastime, boating. “With most of us retired, we have the time to socialize and talk,” said Littell, a former secretary.

Real estate agents say gated communities have still another thing going for them: resale values. Marilyn Larsen, president of Jericho-based Lane Realty, which handles initial sales and resales of homes in gated communities, said a house in a gated enclave can fetch $50,000 to $100,000 more than a comparable property elsewhere. “It’s a lifestyle people are buying,” said Larsen.

Five years ago, Marc Ellis, now 36, and his wife, Alisa, 35, paid $229,000 for a three-bedroom, 2½- bath townhouse in Country Pointe at Melville. In August, they sold their Melville house for $470,000. They are planning to move in December into a new $1-million, 5-bedroom, 3 1/2-bath home in another gated community, Country Pointe at Dix Hills. “We were able to upgrade to a house because of the appreciation of the townhouse,” said Marc Ellis, who works on Wall Street.

And Country Pointe at Dix Hills will provide the Ellises and their two young children with a luxurious lifestyle, as well as a bigger home, they say. Through a special arrangement with The Greens, another gated community under construction nearby, Country Pointe at Dix Hills residents will be able to use the facilities in The Greens’ expansive club house. “That was an attraction,” Ellis said. “It means I don’t need to join a country club or put in a swimming pool.”

Nevertheless, gated communities do have drawbacks, their residents say. After five years of owning a home in Farmingdale and being able to modify it to his liking, Sundberg said he had to “adjust to living by the rules” of The Villages of Huntington’s homeowners association. When he wanted to level a hill in his backyard that borders a neighboring farm, Sundberg had to get the association’s permission. More recently, he has had to file paperwork with the association to install a backyard fence.

He has learned to adapt, though. “In a way, even though it is a hassle, I understand that these are necessary rules to maintain the appearance of the community,” said Sundberg, who is the homeowners association president.

Among other detractions, homes in gated communities often sit on smaller parcels of land than those built outside the gate. Developers say this is because land prices are so high that they must blanket it with as many housing units as possible to make the project financially viable. To offset the limited elbow room between neighbors, gated communities generally include common areas, such as parks, walking trails and playgrounds. “Lots are fairly small – one-third of an acre – at The Villages of Huntington, but there’s a lot of open space so you don’t get a sense that it’s a dense project,” developer Barbash said.

Others question the security these communities provide, which may be only as effective as the person guarding the gate. What’s more, the guard at the main entrance sometimes becomes too costly to support, and communities wind up replacing their human sentries with electronic devices. On average, paying for a 24-hour human sentry can run about $110,000 to $120,000 a year, industry experts say.

But the gate itself, while subject to criticism and maintenance costs, shows no signs of losing its appeal, said Steven Klar, president of The Klar Organization in East Meadow. “In light of Sept. 11’s security issues,” he said, “people are going to rely more and more on gates.”

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