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Cohousing takes root in Charlotte

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted November 3, 2006

CHARLOTTE — In today’s wireless, fast-paced society where everyone is connected but people still yearn for belonging, a small tight-knit community is trying to return to a time when neighbors helped neighbors.

Champlain Valley Cohousing began nearly six years ago as an idea to create a community its founders had yet to find on their own.
On a recent sunny afternoon, members of this cohousing community shared stories of the past year, when they last spoke with the Guardian about their hopes for the project, which had just broken ground.

In May of this year, the first families moved in and by July a triplex was filled. To date, eight families are moved in and phase one of the community is sold out, including one quadplex, one triplex, and several single family homes, the first of which is nearly built and more are to be built in the spring. The group has sold both of its affordable units, which are being underwritten by the Burlington Community Land Trust. The most recent went to a single mother.

The group also was able to get its farmers moved in, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) effort called Brookfield Farms. All of the cohousing members are part of the CSA, and the farm’s produce is also sold at local farmer’s markets, said Debbie Ramsdell, a 39-year resident of Charlotte, and a member of the cohousing group.

So far, the planned community has met, if not exceeded, the expectations of its members. A group met recently in Ramsdell’s home to talk about the community and where it’s headed, and where it’s been in the last year.

“Three months in, and I got to thinking about what we had imagined it would be in the beginning and it is so much better than I thought it would be,” said Larilee Suiter, one of the founding members. Suiter had been interested in cohousing for more than 15 years, and visited more than 25 cohousing communities before settling on the Champlain community. In 2000, Suitor began working in earnest to make the Charlotte project happen, and moved to the Burlington area in 2002.

Kelly Devine, along with her husband Rick and their two children, moved to Vermont from Plymouth, MA, after looking at other cohousing communities in the planning stages in New England.

She’s glad they made the move, and says the ability for this group to get to the building stage is a major step for any cohousing community.
Only about 25 percent of cohousing communities go from kitchen table talk to construction. Nationally, there are 165 active cohousing communities, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States. Of those, 27 are in New England.

And, she has high hopes for her community. Already, her children have come to trust their neighbors as surrogate relatives and last-minute childcare, or waking a child from a nap to run an errand, are not as big a deal anymore. She has help right next door.
Spontaneous shared meals are the norm, Suiter said, and during the summer months the families were able to put a picnic table to good use. As the weather cooled, they headed inside.

An anchor concept for most cohousing communities is the common house, a shared space where community meals, shared recreation, and hang-out time occurs. That part of the project is still in the works, with hope that it will be built next year. Today, that’s where the community picnic table sits.

These cohousers share more than their homes and meals.

Suiter said these first members are doing more than just creating their own community.

“We’re developing a shared history together, and over time, even when there is conflict that may arise, there is a treasured and shared history that binds people and helps them to work through it,” said Suiter.

Lucy Beck, who moved here from New York to be part of the cohousing group, said there are other benefits that are more tangible, and visible, in her home.

“It’s just wonderful to have the external acts of my life match my values,” said Beck. “We all share such a large common value system. And, beyond sharing the company of each other, we can share ‘things.’”

Beck said that means common household appliances that may only get used once in awhile may not need to be purchased for each home.
“Just being able to put into practice the act of minimizing the things that you accumulate and move with you has been wonderful,” said Beck.
The group also talks excitedly about being stewards for their 125-acre property, which includes identifying native species and enjoying the visiting wildlife. On a recent fall day, a young bull moose traversed the property, much to the delight of its human inhabitants.

In each of these cohousing communities, the homes are built as either connected units, or close together, on only a small portion of the total land. The remaining property is preserved, often sold to a conservation group, such as the Vermont Land Trust, to ensure it will not be developed further. This allows for farming use, as well.

“Stewarding a landscape of this diversity is remarkable,” Beck said.

For more information about Champlain Valley Cohousing, visit their website at www.champlainvalleycohousing.org. The community holds open houses every Sunday from 1-3 p.m.