Saturday, February 20, 2010

Mike Rhodes' Tour + A Big Decision

Roger here.... I have always been a nature lover. I prefer hikes in the woods to golfing. I prefer snorkeling to tennis. One of my proudest accomplishments was to establish (with a colleague) a 3-day overnight environmental education camp program for all of the 7th graders at my school in the 1970s. (By the way, it still exists, decades later, only now in all three of the junior high schools). (Dianne here: What Roger won't tell you is that he was given an award from the Indiana Tree Farm Association for developing the best environmental program in the State of Indiana at that time). So, I was very excited about taking a guided trip through the local jungle on a 10-person ATV.

Last week we signed up to take the very-popular tour of the "greater" Bentsen Palm development here in the Rio Grande Valley. The tour of this remarkable project was actually conducted by Mike Rhodes, the owner of the 2,600 acres where our RV resort rests. The large ATV vehicle that you see was our transportation. Dianne and I were in the back seat, where we held on for dear life as we plunged through the jungle on the ATV trails. Can you tell that it was very chilly that day? (Darn that El Nino!)
No pictures during the trip - way too bumpy - needed both hands to hold on! (Dianne here: Notice the foam bumper pad above our heads; that was there for a reason!)
Dianne and I were both surprised that the owner of the development was the guy who drove the vehicle and did all the commentary. We were soon to be impressed by his vision for this development and the remarkable progress he has already made.

Mike Rhodes is an ecologist, a farmer, an educator, and a developer. His vision is to make this 4 mile by 2 mile section of land adjoining Bentsen Rio Grande State Park and bordering the Rio Grande River the perfect community. He drove us through much of the 3,000 acres that he has donated as a wildlife refuge and the 800 acres that he has donated to the North American Butterfly Association - lots of rare butterflies here! He has forged partnerships with the state park and environmentalists. He is re-vegetating old fields with native Texas plantings to return them to their natural state.

He has developed a series of biking/hiking/ATV trails so that the people of the area can enjoy the results. The indigenous fauna that thrive in the refuge include: bobcats, jacarundi, ocelots, millions of birds, coyotes that howl every night, butterflies, fire ants (much to Chaplin's chagrin) and of course my favorite, the javelina. Being a former science teacher with an affinity for life science and ecology, I was intrigued by his preservationist efforts. (Dianne here: His wife is a master gardener and very interested in Texas native plants. She has overseen the common plantings at the RV park and also in Retama Village. The goal is to plant bird and butterfly-friendly native Texan plants throughout the development.)

But, it does not end there. He built the Bentsen Palm Village RV Park next door to the state park, so that the state park could return its campground area to a natural state. He worked closely with the City of Mission to develop a huge public park for the city, that has nearly every recreational amenity - tennis, basketball, soccer, baseball, frisbee golf, bike trails, shuffle board, on and on and on.

He is developing very nice family-oriented housing developments along the periphery of the property, full of playgrounds, swimming pools, community areas, and green space.

His pet project was that he donated the land for the development of the IDEA School, a charter school that has had amazing success. He continues his involvement on the school board. The teachers at the school take turns tutoring every evening or in Saturday School so that none of the students fall behind. The focus is on academics. The high school is ranked among the top public high schools in the country. Most of the graduates get college scholarships, and they continue to be counseled by IDEA school professionals as they progress through college. There is a huge waiting list to get in. Residents of the RV park donate their time to help at the school - reading to young students, among other things. The school even has a program for teaching English to the students' parents who do not speak it and wish to learn. The focus on academic growth and hard work of the dedicated staff is obviously the key to the success of the school. As the former principal of a junior high school, I was very impressed.

Now for the part that will surprise some of our friends. The last stop on the tour was Retama Village. It is a 55+ gated community adjacent to Bentsen Palm Village and Bentsen Rio Grande State Park. There are a variety of options to purchase lots and homes in this community. They vary from two-bedroom homes, one- or two-bedroom casitas with covered RV ports, and RV lots with 12 x 20 (Phase I) or 12 x 24 (Phase II) -foot coach houses. We have included a few pictures of the public areas at Retama, including the lap
and social pool, hot tub, library,
billiard room,
outdoor kitchen,
etc. It is a beautiful place. In addition, residents have free access to the State Park and all of the amenities at the RV park: kayaks, bicycles, dog park (a real plus for our boys), among others. For a small price we also have access to a pontoon boat on the Rio Grande and the ATVs for playing in the jungle.

Look at the picture of Dianne with the golden shovel
and you'll know what's coming. After a couple days of thinking it through, we purchased an RV lot in Phase II with a 20 x 24 coach house, and will be finishing off the inside to meet our needs. There is a 12 x 17-foot semi-private patio behind the coach house that we will cover with a pergola. The outside structure and landscaping (and maintenance) will be taken care of by Retama. This will be our new home base. We will be selling the little house in Indiana, but will be traveling to Indiana every July and August so that I can help my former school corporation do all those necessary HR things that must occur at the beginning of each year, also so we can see our friends and Dianne's cousins near Lafayette. I am going to let Dianne explain why this makes sense for us. Honestly, it really does make sense.

Dianne here: This really wasn't as much of a snap decision as it sounds. I had been researching home bases in the south for over a year, and had read about Retama Village. It sounded so perfect for us, that I was ready to buy one sight-unseen when we sold our house. Part of the reason we rented a spot here at Bentsen Palms Village this winter was so that we could check it out, and check the area out, in person. A wrinkle in the plan developed when we ended up with the small house in Indiana that we also owned, when our daughter and granddaughter moved to Florida last August. At that time we decided to keep that house as a home base instead, and travel around in the winter instead of in the summer.

We've learned a few things since we've been full-timing in the RV. We learned last winter, after touring all of Florida, that the rv lots there just didn't feel right for us. We'd been to Florida so many times that by the time we left there last April, we were pretty sick of it and ready to head north. We have also learned that the places far enough south to stay warm in January and February are few and far between in the U.S., and crowded with snowbirds, making it necessary to plan way ahead and pay top dollar if we want any space at all. Rent for RV spaces in those places are only going to go up as the baby-boom retirees head south.

A flaw with our plan of keeping Indiana as a summer base and traveling the rest of the year was that we would miss out on some prime travel months (May and June) that could be spent anywhere in the U.S., not just in the extreme south.

Another flaw in our original plan came to me as an epiphany after we were down here. We had kept the little house as an appreciating asset, since our "home on wheels" is a depreciating asset. Texas wasn't hit as hard in the housing bust. The RV lots at Retama Village have not gone down in price, but instead have gone up in value over the past three years, and re-sales don't last long on the market. My epiphany was that the little house in Indiana was not going to appreciate much, if any, in value; we certainly would not be able to recoup the maintenance money we would need to sink into it (future new roof, huge trees trimmed, some new flooring, new wallboard).

Our cost of living this winter here at Bentsen Palm has been incredibly cheap. All the things we enjoy: hiking, birding, biking, kayaking, geocaching, and just hanging out on the patio, are right at our fingertips without even having to get in the car. Our days go fast here, and our time here is almost over. We're not ready to leave! Since Retama is right next door, we will still have all of those conveniences. There are lots of community green spaces, and a community organic garden where residents can stake out a plot and grow their own produce. There is a grove of citrus trees planted there also, which will provide fruit for the picking as soon as they are large enough to produce.

Retama and Bentsen Palms Village share the incredible dog park, so our whippets can have lots of room to run at full speed when they want to, and play with their many dog friends. In short, there is no other place in the U.S. like this that I know of, that has everything we want. There are volunteering opportunities here that interest both of us: Roger plans to volunteer at the Idea School, and I hope to volunteer next winter at the Cinderella Pet Rescue.

Our daughters live in California and Florida; both areas where an rv lot that we would be happy with would be out of reach financially. Texas is in the middle, and far enough south that we could drive either east or west at any time of year from here. We'll still see our Indiana friends in the summers; that won't be any different, because we would not see them between November and March anyway. Summers are so hot here that our house on wheels will whisk us away to places north every April, and we'll have six or seven months to travel the entire U.S., not just the south. If we decide not to spend the winter in Texas some year, we can rent our space out while we're gone. The rental rate here is 100%, because Bentsen Palms Village RV park sells out with returning snowbirds very early. As soon as that happens, people start calling Retama to rent out the few owner-unoccupied lots for the following season.

The more we pondered our decision, the more it became a no-brainer. The clincher is the very friendly people here, both snowbirds and locals. It is a very welcoming place. The advantage of an rv lot over a house or even a casita is that residents spend so much time outdoors that it's easy to make friends and socialize.
In fact, we've already met our future neighbors, who have invited us to a patio party this evening.
The "sold" coach houses
in these photos are in the lots next to the lot we purchased; ours is just dirt right now. They'll start construction of our coach house in a few weeks. They look alike from the outside, and there are strict covenants to "keep up the appearance" from the street side and help hold the value.

Roger and I are very excited and very sure about this decision. I'll include a link to a blog that shows some of the
clever ways folks have finished out their tiny coach houses.

These are all in Phase I and are 12 x 20. Our little house will
be slightly larger, 12 x 24, and on a larger lot which backs up to a nature area, so we'll be able to
do even more!


Margie and Roger said...

As I started reading the first part of the post about your ATV trip, I just knew, absolutely, that you would be buying a lot. I knew from previous posts that you were really enjoying that location - it just felt right for both of your interests. You came to the same conclusion we did regarding owning an appreciating asset along with the depreciating one. You did good! Looking forward to photos of your new home. Hey, maybe some time we can swap lots for the winter!!

Karen and Al said...

It sounds like a wonderful location for you two and the coach house is so cute! I can't wait to see it completed!