Eco-community: Cohousing that preserves green space

Beautiful View
A spectacular view can be one of the benefits of an eco-community.

Cohousing can serve a variety of purposes and take different forms. But one exciting approach is a hybrid of cohousing and the ecovillage – what I call an eco-community. Here your monthly mortgage payment does double-duty. Not only do you create a new cohousing community, you also help the environment immediately around you. You might get a spectacular park or forest for your backyard, to boot. It can be a win-win situation for everyone.

Unlike its more complex cousin, the ecovillage, the creation of the eco-community revolves around one single theme: saving valuable green space. As Liz Walker explained in an earlier article, this is one of the important lessons cohousing can gain from ecovillages.

In the case of an eco-community, the core group – or possibly a landowner, builder or developer – seeks to attract a group of environmentally oriented individuals and families to help save a relatively large parcel of undeveloped land. Typically, this would be an estate or farm too large for even several people pooling their money to afford on their own.

Green objectives

The goal with an eco-community is to build only enough dwellings on a relatively small footprint of the property to pay for the project. The rest of the land is “retired” for green purposes. Or maybe the undeveloped land is dedicated to growing organic produce, creating a condominium horse farm, raising grass-fed beef or simply to making a wildlife preserve in a forest setting. But saving most of the land from development is the indispensable point.

My family and I are converting our own 100-acre organic farm near Asheville, NC, into what we think is America’s first vegetarian eco-community: The Woodlands at DeerHaven Hills. Its purpose is two-fold: to help bring together a group of vegetarian individuals and families to forge a community of new, like-minded friends, and to save more than 90 acres of what would normally by now be prime residential development property. The eco-community assures that the 90 acres can remain green space forever. To us, it is an ideal way to help save a threatened parcel of natural beauty.

The eco-community model is both simple and powerful: buy a large tract of land, build only enough homes to pay for the project, and retire the rest of the land from development forever. European and Asian countries have been making wise use of their land for generations and now many Americans would like to follow suit, but they don’t know how.

A different approach

Here’s one hypothetical way it could work. Farmer Brown, a small family farmer, has 100 acres that have been in his family for generations. But in recent years, his conventional farming has become less able to compete with foreign imports and “techno-foods” grown by huge agri-corporations.

If he’s near a thriving town or city, chances are good that residential developers have begun making him offers. His taxes are probably soaring as the value of his land increases, making such offers tempting. However, he’d like to keep on farming – it’s what he really knows how to do well.

But the future for small farms lies in niche markets like organic foods. Yet to grow foods organically, there’s a three-year transition period that he can’t afford to wait out. He and his family need income.

Selling the land

Instead of selling to a conventional residential developer, Farmer Brown finds a core group or an “eco-developer” who will buy most of Brown’s land at fair market value, say, $1,000,000. Brown keeps his present homestead’s five acres so he and his family won’t have to move. He then invests the proceeds from the land sale and is able to live off the income that the sale has produced.

The core group or eco-developer builds, say, 30 attached townhouses on five acres of the 95-acre property. Once the townhouses are sold, the balance of the land – in this case, 90 acres – is turned over to the new co-housing homeowners association.

Part of the sales appeal for the eco-community’s project is the arrangement with Farmer Brown to continue farming 90 acres of his former land. The goal is to farm in such a way that the land can qualify for organic certification within the next few years.

The homeowners association works out a suitable arrangement with Farmer Brown to share profits and produce as Brown transitions into organic farming. In doing so, within the next few years, Brown and the association may be able to realize a decent profit because of the rising demand for locally grown organic produce.

Green space forever

On the other hand, if Brown wishes to retire, the farm could be leased out to a younger farmer on the same basis. At worst, the land could be allowed to revert to forest, then the trees harvested sustainably, producing enough income to at least pay taxes. The land could be designated as a wildlife preserve. Or, since some cohousing purists frown on having the community as a source of income for its residents, future development rights might be sold to a variety of state or private land trusts to help further reduce the actual cost of the land to the new homeowners. The purpose of such trusts is to retire desirable green space from future development. The community land trusts movement, in particular, promotes both land preservation and affordable housing.

Of course, this is a brief and idealized scenario, but the model could work well with many situations and parcels of land. Eco-communities make the most sense in areas where suburbs with conventional housing developments are marching out to meet rural farmland. Much of that farmland is facing foreclosure or development.

The eco-community can provide the best of cohousing for everyone involved. The biggest winner is the land itself.