Bellingham’s First
Cohousing Community

by Kate N. Nichols

Cohousing is a unique way of bringing people together who want to live in a community designed to meet their needs. Bellingham Cohousing Group is one of about 200 groups in the United States that are in the process of developing a neighborhood. Bellingham Cohousing Group passed their first major milestone by buying 5.78 acres at 2614 Donovan Avenue in September 1997 to develop as a cohousing community. They surpassed that milestone when they designed their site plan of Bellingham’s first cohousing neighborhood and preserved the magic of the old “Donovan Farm.”

Donovan Farm has been a part of Bellingham since 1890. In recent history many people have lived on the property in a barn, in a bus or teepee, with an open-door policy. But when the Massey family wanted to sell the property, that community moved on and in a daring, or some feel foolish move, four people in Bellingham Cohousing Group agreed to put up the down payment on the land.

What Is Cohousing?
Each household owns their own home. Homes can be built smaller and simpler because the community builds a common house The common house has a kitchen and dining room, where the group has optional meals together. Members take turns cooking. The community can share resources such as a lawn mower, tools, a boat, truck, whatever it chooses. Marinus Van De Kamp and his wife Irene MacPherson started this cohousing group in Bellingham two years ago.

Van De Kamp said, “I grew up in a small town in Holland and I miss some of the community feeling in my neighborhood.” There are presently six households in the group committed to the development.

The group’s drive got them to the point of designing a site for thirty-two attached homes. Their primary considerations in site design were that it would encourage a sense of community, make a connection to the larger community, and respect the environment. They also wanted to ensure that everyone’s voice was heard in the process.

Once the group’s design criteria and priorities were clear the group came up with a plan of three clusters of homes. Cars will be parked at the periphery of the property with pedestrian pathways from the parking to the houses. Footpaths will also connect the three clusters. Each cluster has an area called a gathering node that will be planned by the households in the cluster to encourage people to gather. Each cluster will decide what they want to include in their gathering node: a sand box for kids and picnic tables or benches under a grape arbor, for example. The group agreed that they wanted surprises along the paths around the community. Views of the Chuckanut Mountains and of the tree-lined front entrance are priorities and a sacred spot by Connelly Creek, which runs through the south end of the site, will also be observed.

A Neighborhood Within a Neighborhood
Because of the group’s concern that it interact with the larger community, the cohousing garden was planned along the city trail on the eastside of the property to encourage passersby to stop and chat. They plan to put open parking along the front edge so that people walking by can look into the community. A basketball court is planned in the parking lot so that neighbors can see a game and join in. Also the group plans to clean up the front of the property along the street and add interesting landscape to welcome people into the community.

Each person in the group was encouraged to bring their vision to the site plan. One member suggested the existing greenhouse be cleaned up and included in the plan. Other group members want to raise rabbits and chickens and a place was set aside for them near the garden. There will be a “tot lot,” a playing field for children and adults, and a workshop with a space for teens.

Another member likes to hang her clothes up outside and wanted to make sure there was space so the clothes line has a conspicuous space behind the common house.

The common house is the heart of the community and there are plans for a large porch facing the open wetlands to the south with a terrace for community gatherings. The L-shaped terrace can be viewed from most homes so anyone who wants to know if there is any action going on, can just step outside their door and peek out at the terrace.

The old Donovan farmhouse will be renovated to use as the common house and a dining room will be added on to it for optional meals. The group envisions space in the common house for a library, crafts, a room for children, guest room, and office space as well as a place to share expertise. In most cohousing neighborhoods, parents organize after-school activities. Furthermore, both parents and their children benefit greatly from the site plan. Without automobile access along the front of the houses, it is a safer place to raise children. The Donovan site has lots of green space for kids and adults to play. The whole project is designed to be family-oriented which is reflected in the fact that the group offers child care to continue to attract more families.

Low-Impact Development
The group is paying close attention to the environmental impact of the project on the land. The large trees will remain. There are 2.8 acres of designated wetland on the property. In a conventional development, there would have been wetland mitigation and detached homes built into the wetlands. But the Bellingham Cohousing Group will build attached homes and stay out of the wetlands. Building attached homes will also save on the amount of building material used.

The plan has less impermeable surface area than a regular development: houses have smaller footprints; larger homes will be two-story rather than one story; there will be less road area into the neighborhood, and fewer parking spaces and garages. Additionally, the group hopes to work with the city of Bellingham to enhance the creek.

Many, many meetings are required to develop this project. Most groups make their decision based on a non-hierarchical structure so that everyone in the community has a voice in how it is built. Similarly, the Bellingham group hired Holly O’Neil to teach them the formal consensus decision making process. Afterwards, the group agreed to use the handbook on formal consensus decision making “On Conflict & Consensus,” (Food Not Bombs Publishing, 1991) by C.T. Lawerence Butler and Amy Rothstein, as an ongoing guide to the process. Members find the group process a challenge and a great learning experience.

Is It Within My Budget?
Cohousing costs as much as a regular development, sometimes more when group participation time is factored into the design process. However, cohousing groups often use better building materials than a conventional developer and tend to focus on energy efficiency. Although the homes are smaller, each household pays for a portion of the common house. For those who may qualify for low-income housing, the group is actively investigating options to build up to five or six homes that are affordable to those families and seniors.

Chris Hanson, a cohousing development consultant, came and did a development plan workshop with the group in January. On March 28, Katie McCamant is coming back to program the common house and the vision will continue to take on the reality of what the group can afford as well as what the space will look like.

Bellingham Cohousing Group formed a Limited Liability Company to develop the property. A household becomes a member of the company by buying an interest in it. People who are interested in the group may observe meetings. It is not just a financial commitment; every adult in the community needs to participate in developing the property. Once the homes are built, a member’s financial interest in the company becomes the down payment for their house.

The group wll probably form a condominium association once the houses are built. The group has also discussed setting up a community land trust for the common areas of the land.

Personal Boundaries Okay
In talking to a couple of people who have lived in Puget Ridge in West Seattle for the past three years, they agree that living in a close community is not for everyone. Some people are concerned about the lack of privacy. However, “I haven’t even put up curtains,” said Barb Erwine who has lived in Puget Ridge for the past three years. “Most people are too isolated (outside of cohousing). When people need privacy, such as the two couples who had new babies, they simply put notes up on their doors requesting it.”

Teenagers have had the most trouble adjusting to cohousing. A “simpatico teen culture hasn’t developed yet in Puget Ridge,” according to Marty Kehill, mother of two teenagers.” Some teenagers moved into cohousing with fantasies of being part of a big, happy family. But although there was tremendous goodwill, when everyone actually moved into the community, they became more reserved.” “In general, teenagers are focused more on their friends and are not as involved with the community,” added Leslie Wood from Windsong, a cohousing neighborhood in Langley, B.C., who is also a single mother of two teenagers. “But over time, they may.”

Here in Bellingham, group members hope that it takes several cups of tea (or a beer) and an hour to walk from their car to their home. The group wants diversity and welcomes anyone that would like to join in making cohousing a reality in Bellingham.