Finding a New Way t o Live

Finding a New Way t o Live

August 8, 2002

At the end of a winding, bumpy, dirt road on the banks of the Catoctin Creek not far from the Potomac in Loudoun County, Lauranne Oliveau and her husband, Kevin, are finally getting to do what they've wanted to do for long time.

"We're realizing our dream here," said Lauranne Oliveau, as she bumped down the road behind the wheel of a four-wheel drive on a tour of the property.

They are developing 18 lots for home construction, surrounded by 115 acres of conservation space, to create what is known as a “cohousing community.”

MEMBERS OF A cohousing community live in individual houses on a campus-like setting, sharing in the upkeep of the community and taking part in community events. Members pay dues to a homeowners association and establish bylaws that govern all members of the community.

At Proximity Cohousing, the community the Oliveaus envision, families will be able to buy plots of land and build their own homes on them. The property features gently rolling hills with thick tree cover and views of the Maryland foothills in the distance.

So far, there is only an old barn, a converted farmhouse and a pond. The farmhouse and the barn will become community centers, where Lauranne Oliveau, who currently lives in Reston, plans to hold meetings, dinners and parties.

All cohousing communities feature a common house for such events, she said. Members split up into cooking teams and share one to five meals a week.

Already, she said, two families have expressed interest in becoming part of the community. Oliveau said she expects families to move in over the course of three years. But, she added, "there could be a land rush and all 18 lots will fill up right away."

This is not a typical subdivision, she stressed. People who invest in a cohousing community know what they're getting into. "It's niche, definitely," she said.

Decisions in the community are made based on consensus, all members having the opportunity to air their feelings. Occasionally, people will butt heads, said Oliveau, but she is quick to add that there is a lot of training material to help people reach effective compromise and, as she says, "craft solutions."

"There are a number of people who do the consensus training," she said. "They know what the typical issues are: dogs, guns, children."

"It's really an evolution of democracy," she said.

SEVERAL COHOUSING communities have popped up in the Washington, D.C., region is recent years. There are two in Loudoun County, one in Vienna and one in the District.

The communities draw their membership from the ranks of the disillusioned suburbanites. Many are white-collar professionals, but there are some retirees and blue-collar workers in the communities as well. Oliveau estimated that the lot and a modular house on top of it probably would not cost more than $300,000. A home at the Blueberry Hill cohousing community off Route 7 in Vienna sells for around $400,000.

"I didn't like living in Reston at all. I hated it," noted Paul Mandell, who moved into Blueberry Hill with his wife and their five children in February.

At the year-old Blueberry Hill development, he said, his family has found a welcoming and involved community.

"This is a participatory neighborhood," he said. "It's not a sit-back-and-have-somebody-mow-your-lawn neighborhood.

"It dissuades a lot of people. It's a niche," he added, echoing Lauranne Oliveau.

His wife, Cookie, recalled the support the family received when they were moving in.

"Everybody appeared out of nowhere to help us unload," she said. "They took the kids off the next day for breakfast."

Blueberry Hill looks like a typical subdivision, with brand-new houses sitting close together on tight lots, surrounded by trees that are so far little more than shrubs. But there is a crucial difference: None of the houses have garages, and there are no streets within the subdivision. Residents park their cars at two central parking lots and stroll from house to house on a footpath.

Cookie Mandell said the community is an ideal place to raise children. Because the community is so small and tight-knit, she said, there are always at least three or four neighbors who know where the children are. The children are never out of sight, she said.

"The irony is they have the illusion of independence where they can take off on their bikes," she said.

Paul Mandell said he is not afraid that children in cohousing communities will grow up in bubble. He noted that they go to regular schools and take part in school activities.

"I think they'll get knocked around a bit" when they move out into the world, he said. But, he added, they will have "a different view of the world than people who haven't lived in cohousing. They'll be better citizens of the world."

Oliveau said children would be less isolated in a special community than in an ordinary suburb. At her home in Reston, her children aren't even allowed to cross the street because of the traffic. But when Proximity Cohousing kicks off, she said, they'll be able to walk over and visit all their neighbors.

"They'll know more people more completely than they would in the suburbs," she said.