Joe Kessi goes where other developers fear to tread.
Kessi searches for small parcels of property near wetlands that have been left orphaned by other builders, who reject the sites as being too expensive or too burdensome by restrictive land-use rules.
The owner of his own development company in St. Helens, Kessi designs neighborhoods around wetlands, incorporating the sensitive property into an asset that benefits both the new neighborhood and the entire community. And he does it while keeping new home prices affordable and the project profitable.
At a time when the construction industry is touting its efforts to be more environmentally sensitive, Kessi is proving that, by thinking outside the box, builders can have a positive impact on the environment.
"We've found our niche in the industry by creating ways to protect and enhance wetlands that make good neighborhoods," said the owner of OHM Equity Partners, LLC.
With the recent explosion in new home construction having filled most of the available urban lands in Northwest Oregon communities, much of what remains undeveloped are smaller sites, many of which are adjacent to sensitive lands. Most developers find the state's land-use laws that protect such lands too restrictive or the hurdles too time-consuming and costly.
Kessi agrees that it can be a challenge to design a project that includes a wetlands site, but he finds the task "fun."
"We don't do the cookie-cutter stuff," he told Coast River Business Journal. "We try to look at what developers will be building 10 years from now, and build it today."
Kessi's company has designed subdivisions in a number of communities, including St. Helens. Most of the local projects involve smaller parcels that will include a handful of single-family homes built close to wetlands.
One local project, ABC Subdivision, includes 14 houses that will surround a wetlands area. The site is nearly all that remains undeveloped from a one-time large forested tract in west St. Helens. Among the subdivision's unique features will be a filtration system that will feed treated storm water runoff into the wetlands. Also, the subdivision is being designed in such a way as to retain many of the large fir trees that now shade the property.
Like most of his projects in St. Helens, Kessi said that he will offer to donate the wetlands area to the city for possible use as a nature trail for the community. He says he prefers giving the sensitive sites to the city rather than leaving the responsibility for the wetlands' protection to homeowners in the subdivision.
"The city has the resources and expertise (to maintain the property). Someday, it may become a city park," he said.
While projects near sensitive lands may take more time and effort to design, Kessi has found ways to rein in costs so that homes in his subdivisions are top quality but remain affordable to first-time home buyers.
His company's five-member staff includes a project manager/inspector, who is at the site full-time throughout construction to immediately handle any problems that arise.
"You can't wait 12 months later to get called back because something wasn't done right during construction," Kessi said. "We handle all problems upfront and right away."
Just as importantly, Kessi hires contractors experienced with working around sensitive lands who have a good track record of "completing the job" on time and on budget.
"Our contractors have done a phenomenal job in being highly organized," he said. "The projects come in on time, on price and with no hidden secrets.
"To be successful in this business, you have to be smarter and more efficient. Every project has to be timed to a tight schedule," Kessi notes.
For Kessi, the rewards from all the effort that go into designing each project are realized when construction is completed and he sees results of everyone's work.
"We try to (make each project) a win- win-win for the property owner, the homeowner and the city," he said.