Whippersnappers Not Allowed

Age-restricted developments are all the real estate rage. But are they a good thing for society?
By Jen Pilla Taylor

A recent television ad features thirty-something "Jason" looking for his mother among a group of mah-jongg–playing ladies on a patio by a lake. She's not with them, they tell Jason. Maybe he should try the bocce court.

But she's not there either. Check the pottery studio, the bocce players suggest.

And that, unfortunately, is where Jason finds his mother—flirting shamelessly at the potter's wheel with a handsome, mustachioed man.

"Mom!" Jason cries out, horrified as the mustachioed man recoils in embarrassment. Mom just smirks.

"Jason, you really should call before you come," she admonishes coyly.

"Experience the lifestyle," purrs an announcer, "at Sun City Carolina Lakes."

A life of leisure, companionship, and freedom—where you can get frisky in ceramics class with minimal risk of being interrupted by children. That's what they're selling at Sun City Carolina Lakes—developer Del Webb's massive active-adult community being built in Lancaster County, South Carolina. And while many of Charlotte's boomers are buying it, others wonder if these retirement utopias—where no one under nineteen may live and every household must have at least one person over fifty-five—are such good ideas.

Executives at Del Webb, which has built more than a dozen Sun City developments during the past fifty years, say Carolina Lakes represents their best sales launch ever, with buyers snapping up 700 homes in nine months. BusinessWeek recently identified Sun City Carolina Lakes as one of four smart places to retire, citing its reasonable housing prices (from $170,000 to $800,000), low South Carolina tax rate, and proximity to Charlotte's sports and cultural amenities and airport.

Carolina Lakes is one of the Charlotte region's most successful developments ever. In 2006, Del Webb closed more than $260 million worth of sales, says real estate analyst Chuck Graham. Before that, the one-year sales record for an individual project in the region had been $100 million. In the first half of this year, as the real estate market softened, Carolina Lakes outsold every other development in the region.  
"It's really unprecedented—an overwhelming success," says Graham.

Today, more than a thousand people live there, but when it's completed in the next five to seven years, it's expected to add as many as 8,000 to 10,000 people—more than the entire population of Fort Mill—to this county of 63,000. And it has spawned similar, though smaller, developments. Epcon Communities has active adult neighborhoods in Tega Cay, Matthews, Weddington, Mountain Island Lake, and in northeast Charlotte, and K. Hovnanian has two retirement communities, one in Fort Mill and another in Cornelius.

If you can talk your way past the Sun City Carolina Lakes gatehouse, just off U.S. 521, eight miles south of Ballantyne Village, it's not hard to see why some people would want to live there. On a recent weekday morning, people were lined up to buy fresh bread, peaches, and tomatoes at the farmers market—open only to Sun City residents—in the parking lot of the lakefront clubhouse. Walkers shared the sidewalks with landscapers tending to the manicured common areas, and the tennis courts and golf course were bustling. Soon, residents will be able to drive their golf carts to a new shopping center that will have a bank, grocery store, pharmacy, and medical offices.

And while the real people at Sun City look almost as happy as the virile sixty-somethings in Del Webb's advertisements, it's not clear that segregating our communities by age is a healthy trend.

Bill McCoy, former director of the Urban Institute at UNC-Charlotte, says people are often concerned that retirees, who typically have no school-age children, won't support bond referendums to build schools and other public infrastructure for fear of higher taxes.

The track record of voters at Del Webb's other South Carolina Sun City, in Hilton Head, is mixed. In 2006, they supported a bond referendum to build new schools. But earlier this year, a majority of Sun City Hilton Head voters rejected a similar referendum. Though the referendum narrowly passed countywide, a local newspaper cited concerns that the children of illegal immigrants were overcrowding the schools as one reason for the lack of Sun City support. There's a move afoot by residents to incorporate Sun City Hilton Head and the immediate surrounding area. One advantage cited by supporters: residents could avoid the additional taxes that they would have to pay if they were annexed by a nearby city.
When Del Webb first announced plans to build Sun City Carolina Lakes in 2005, Lancaster County officials were concerned about the pressures the development would place on public resources. County Planning Director Chris Karres says some of those concerns were assuaged when Sun City developers agreed to a $75 annual per-resident fee for fire and emergency medical services.

Del Webb also donated property adjacent to Carolina Lakes for a new public library to serve Indian Land, the unincorporated northern panhandle of Lancaster County. The Lancaster County Council recently ponied up the final $200,000 needed to complete the project after fundraising fell short.
In Lincoln County, plans for a Sun City have been in limbo since the county increased sewer fees for new residents to $10,000 from $5,150, and Del Webb balked.

Del Webb spokeswoman Caryn Klebba says the stereotype of retirees as tax-avoiding curmudgeons is flat wrong. She notes that while Sun City residents pay taxes to fund education, none of them actually has a child in school. And most, in fact, are grandparents who care deeply about schools and the welfare of children, she says.

"We see our residents as vibrant and engaged in their lives and their community," says Klebba. "They are involved freely and fully in volunteerism efforts and they are concerned with giving back to society."

Tom Low, head of the planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co.'s Charlotte office, says there's a lot to like about Del Webb's Sun City design, including the emphasis on walkability and the ample areas where residents can mingle.
But, he says, the move toward large gated communities like Sun City represents a failure of government to help create "real places" where people want to live.

"People who move to places like this see real places as having a lot of hassles. They're worried about crime, for example," says Low. "And you never know when a tattoo parlor will open up down the street."

But age segregation is unfortunate, says Low, because different generations have a lot to learn from one other.

"You can't build a real society where everyone is the same age," he says.

And yet, Sun City Carolina Lakes residents have already created a community where there's enough organized activity for any active adult to fill his calendar without ever having to venture past the gatehouse.

Jay Hanselman, sixty-four, moved to Carolina Lakes with his wife nearly two years ago from their home in Lake Keowee. The retired businessman had known of Del Webb's reputation for high quality from his college days in Arizona, where the developer pioneered active-adult living.

Hanselman and his wife enjoy playing golf on the community's course and participating in the welcoming committee. She takes water aerobics. He helps run the antique car club and leads a rock 'n' roll band of Carolina Lakes residents.

"There really is always something to do here," Hanselman says. "It's not a place for old people, where you just move and wait to die."
Still, developments like this worry critics such as Andrew Blechman, a journalist who recently wrote the book Leisureville, which posits that the popularity of active-adult communities represents a secession movement in which society is losing some of its most valued citizens.

"When we talk about the boomers, we're talking about the wealthiest and healthiest and best-educated generation in human history—and that's largely a result of the sacrifices made by the generation before them," says Blechman. "And now they want to pull out?"

According to a recent National Association of Home Builders study, about 1 million of the 26 million people in fifty-five-plus households live in age-qualified communities, and half of the million are in the South.

Urban scholar McCoy points out that while active-adult communities are popular, they represent just one of a variety of housing choices for baby boomers hitting retirement age. Another trend for this generation is to move back to urban areas. He says the sheer number of boomers means developers will be prepared to cater to their preferences—whatever they may be.

"There are a lot of them," says McCoy. "And they have money, and that's what matters."