There aren't too many large land parcels left in densely populated Burlington. So when a 7.3-acre plot on East Avenue came up for sale last year, neighbors asked the Burlington Community Development Corporation to protect it from reckless development. The BCDC bought the land and is now poised to sell it to a group that plans to build 32 units of cohousing there.
Cohousing is essentially another name for an intentional community, a cluster of homes owned by families who share certain communal spaces. The concept emerged in Denmark in the 1960s and spread to the States in the '80s in reaction to isolating suburbs and the demise of close-knit neighborhoods, explains Don Schramm, a former board president of the Onion River Co-op, now City Market. Residents participate in community meetings, can eat communal meals, and pool resources to care for themselves and each other.
But no, it's not a commune, explains Barb Nolfi, who is partners on the project with husband Schramm. Nolfi, a former Progressive City Councilor, lived on a commune in the early '70s. She says cohousing is more like a village. "You do have a lot of private space," she notes.
There are currently two completed cohousing developments in Vermont, both rural: Cobb Hill in Hartland and Ten Stones in Charlotte. Another group, Champlain Valley Cohousing in Charlotte, has secured a site. A Montpelier group is forming.
Schramm and Nolfi formed Burlington Cohousing in 1987. Today it's a limited liability corporation, guided by the couple and two other "developer" households. Membership coordinator Joan Knight says there are 16 other "associate member" households, and 20 more on the mailing list. Once the units are built, members will have the option to buy in based on when they joined.
The urban cohousing advocates have come close to developing sites in the past, most recently at McCauley Square on Mansfield Avenue. That fell through three years ago, when neighbors objected to the project's size.
It doesn't appear that the group will have the same problem on East Avenue. The parcel, which extends onto Centennial Woods, was once owned by Edith Turner, whose family farmed there. After Turner died more than a year ago, the Burlington Community Development Corporation stepped in.
Community Economic and Development Organization director Michael Monte says the city was approached by adjoining property owners, city councilors and Burlington Conservation Board members who wanted to see the land conserved as much as possible. The city bought it for $1,175,000 through a federal loan program. No Burlington property taxes financed the purchase. Burlington Cohousing will repay the entire amount, plus interest.
In keeping with Burlington's Legacy Project, which supports cohousing, the city approached the organizers last summer. Noting the uniqueness of the opportunity, Monte says, "It's going to provide some . . . affordable housing, and ensure the opportunity for conservation."
Plans call for 32 housing units - half as many as a commercial developer might have wanted, according to Schramm. Seventeen units will be affordable; a one-bedroom might sell for $80,000. The clustered houses, with minimal yards, allow for ample communal green space. The property's portion of Centennial Woods will remain undeveloped, and abutting neighbors will have the option of purchasing some of the land to enlarge their backyards. The project still requires Design Review Board approval and an Act 250 permit.
Neighbor Jeanne Keller approves. She and other area homeowners considered purchasing the property, but couldn't afford to buy it without developing it. "If the city hadn't stepped in," she says, "it would have gone to a developer . . . Once you get over wishing it could be open, these are the best neighbors we could have."