A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2017

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Clearwater Commons — Co-housing where nature and nurture meet 

by Candace Brown

 

 

At the top of a wooded hill, I slowed my car to gaze down at the vista below. A small group of half-built houses clustered closely together in an open meadow, surrounded by wetlands, and the sounds of power saws and hammers rose up through the chilly air of that February morning. I had arrived. Here was Clearwater Commons, the Puget Sound region’s most comprehensive deep green and low impact co-housing project.

Once discovered around the bend in the road, the development pulled at me. The magnetism of a human settlement felt instinctive and ancient, in spite of the stylish architecture of the homes taking shape. And although located near busy Bothell-Everett Highway, as well as the city of Seattle—about 11 miles to the south—it offered the ambience of a retreat, a haven of peacefulness and good vibes. And that was no surprise, considering its origins. Clearwater Commons exists because a group of friends who had known each other for a long time wanted to turn their sense of community into a tangible neighborhood.

But this dream did not manifest without struggle. For the sake of their vision, these people persevered for six years and overcame horrendous hurdles. Those hurdles involved county and state regulatory bodies, enormous fees, a sinking economy, a banking crisis, the loss of jobs, much hard work, and many headaches. I had come to meet a few of these individuals and hear their stories.

The long route to a new neighborhood

The families behind Clearwater Commons came together back in 1996 to form an alternative school for children ages 4-19, a Sudbury School. It began in Seattle but soon outgrew its space and needed a new location. After forming the Clearwater Commons LLC, they purchased a parcel of land in unincorporated Snohomish County, in the state of Washington, on which to build Clearwater School. That was June of 2006. At the same time, the LLC also purchased 7.4 acres across the road, land that had been the site of an old farm. Call that the easy part. They never imagined it would take until 2012 to see the houses finally rise.

A section of North Creek, an important salmon stream, runs through both properties. Changes to the environment brought on by human activity over many decades meant the loss of trees and their cooling shade that salmon require, along with pools of calmer water. Blackberries and other invasive vegetation took over everywhere. The creek often flooded. It desperately needed restoration to provide optimum conditions for salmon spawning. 

As citizens who wanted to be stewards of the land, the members of Clearwater Commons LLC took on the challenge, and met it, partly through a productive partnership with Snohomish County Surface Water Management. They donned boots and gloves, formed work parties, and dug and planted around North Creek as well as in other areas of the wetland. (The story of this restoration, including video, can be accessed here.) But those physical efforts did not tire them as much as the legal hassles.


from Bob Freeman

from Candace Brown

 

Tom Campbell is a member of Clearwater Commons who has an impressive background in urban planning. He dedicated five years of his life to this project. “There are so many times when this vision is challenged, internally, for me,” he said to me. We sat with two other members, Eric Dolven and Candace Pidcock, in a common building located near the four first housing units under construction, including Dolven’s house and Pidcock’s duplex.

Campbell went on to say that he had often wondered, “What have we gotten ourselves into.”  He described the challenges of a building a deep green development and being made to feel deviant by doing so. Add to that, the issues involved in building near a wetland, plus restoring a salmon stream, and you vastly multiply the number of rules and regulations.

“While all the policy is going toward low impact development,” Campbell said, “the ability to make it work right is still evolving, to the extent that local governments even support this kind of work.”

Pidcock added, “The process got extended because we were the first low impact development in Snohomish County, and I think they didn’t know what to do with us. Our application would go to the bottom of the pile.” And every step of the journey meant more fees to pay.

“It’s tenacity,” Campbell said. “You’ve got to be willing to just say, ‘Nothing is going to break this deal!’  I do advise a lot of people about what it will take for them to do it. It’s such a complicated process made even harder because of the economy and financing.”

Dolven and his wife will soon move their family into their new home, the largest on the property, but it has been a scary ride to reach this destination. “We invested a full share and bought a lot,” he said. “It was the projected cost of purchasing the land plus the estimated site improvements.  As the market started coming apart, I thought, ‘That’s lost, and the only way to get it back is just to forge ahead. The only way is to stick with it and try to carry it through until it’s done.’”

But in spite of discouragement, his trust in his fellow members held fast. “Seeing Clearwater School go through all its morphs and changes and growth, there’s this core group that stuck together. If there was ever a group of people who I trust can do this, it’s this group of people.”

 

 

  from Bob Freeman

 

What shape will this neighborhood take and how will neighbors interact? 

Clearwater Commons clusters homes close together to provide more shared open space and to preserve the wetland. Housing unit plans range from 1,300 to 1,800 square feet with the exception of one that is larger but also includes an animation/sound studio as part of the owner's business. The long-range view is of a mixed community that accommodates its members throughout different stages and circumstances of life, with families living in close proximity to one another. The aspect of proximity brings up the question of everyone getting along.

“The underpinnings of the school, the three important words, are freedom, trust, and responsibility,” Pidcock said. “I think the underpinnings of the community are the same, that everybody has the responsibility to be full, participating members but with the freedom to choose at what level they want to participate, or where they want to participate. We’re really going to shy away from having a lot of rules.”

However, as Campbell pointed out, “Every condominium has to have a set of covenants and rules. There is a state set of standards for covenants, codes and restrictions, the CCRs, so you need to adopt something. We’ve worked to really minimize some of those.”

Sharon Garrity, a member with whom I had a telephone conversation showed great enthusiasm for the development but expressed a few concerns when she said, “I know the people involved really well and I feel like everyone is respectful about giving people space. But that could change as more people, that we don’t know as well, join the group.” 

Garrity will live in the other half of Pidcock’s duplex. She compared Clearwater Commons to the Seattle neighborhood where she spent her childhood: “The houses there were packed in tight. My particular block was kind of a micro community because you knew your neighbors. The part that feels really different is that we’re making decisions together. That’s the part that is possibly a little scary. We have agreed that we’re going to make these decisions, but they’re not by consensus. We purposely decided that it was going to be democratically driven. There was a lot of discussion around that. Does consensus work? Does it just mean that some people cave in? In a democracy, you get to say what you really think, even if you don’t always win.”

Pidcock, Campbell, and Dolven also discussed the idea of consensus. Dolven said, “We try to seek consensus. That’s the first course of action, but we’re not bound by consensus.”

Pidcock stressed that so far they have made it work. “If anybody has an objection or a reason why they can’t live with a particular decision or rule, it is their responsibility to voice that, to talk things through.”

But now, building lots will be marketed to people not part of the original group that started the school. Newcomers must join Clearwater Commons LLC before they can purchase a lot, but what if after moving in they don’t fit into the situation comfortably?

“Our process, as loose as it is, is that we get to know each other, and we find out if there’s a fit,” Campbell said. “Nobody can just come in and buy something without our agreement. They have to be approved by the Clearwater Commons LLC. We’re actually the ones selling it to them. But we have a really wide lens about the kinds of people who might be interested.”

 “In terms of selecting other members,” Pidcock added, “I trust that as people get to know us—we invite them to work parties, we invite them to meetings—many folks who are not appropriate for the community will self-select out, deciding that this isn’t right for them, not so much that we’re deciding they’re not right for us.”

A different kind of house hunting

Dolven pointed out that no one can just buy and move in. “The other screen is that no one is building a spec house, building a house intent on selling it. If someone wants to live here, they have to build a house. That involves a great deal of investment. Our architect drew up plans that these are all based on, and that’s part of the package. They buy a lot and a set of designs.”

 

 from Bob Freeman

 

“What about the designs,” I asked. “Are there limitations?”

Campbell responded with “I think we’re open to proposal. But when you start looking at the size of the lots, the units —and you look at all the work that has gone in on engineering and architecture that you would have to pay for that yourself, as opposed to customizing one that is already done—it  kind of works toward having something you can take advantage of.”

The builder is Sloan Ritchie, owner of the highly acclaimed green building company called Cascade Built. His standards for energy efficiency exceed the norm to a degree beyond comparison.  Features include heat recovery ventilators, advanced window technology, the best insulation available, and more.  All homes come pre-wired and pre-plumbed for solar hot water, with the capacity to upgrade to a photovoltaic (PV) system later on, if desired. They are even wired for electric cars.

We specialize in sustainable construction and we try to have as small of an impact on the environment as possible,” Ritchie told me, “so these houses fit perfectly with what we do. It’s an interesting and committed group of individuals and we share the same values, so it’s working out great.”

 

 from Bob Freeman

 

The lifestyle

Campbell says some people who hear about Clearwater Commons come there expecting to find a co-housing community that grows all its own food or shops cooperatively. “We’re not that kind of community,” he commented. “Maybe we’ll do some potlucks but there’s no set thing. I think it’s kind of an interesting process, having it be more open. Others have a clear sense of the type of co-housing community they want.”

Pidcock added, “That’s one of the fastest ways to kill community, to require that everyone shows up for a Wednesday evening potluck.” But Dolven jokingly reminded everyone that work parties are required.

The lifestyle at Clearwater Commons will suit some people perfectly but might not be favored by others.  For example, part of the low impact approach is having one parking lot, with a pervious surface (rainwater permeable) set away from the buildings. It is meant to serve all residents no matter where in the neighborhood their home is situated. The development will eventually include 16 residences but none will include a garage.

There is a workshop building available for everyone’s use, as well as the common building where we met, which will be available for meetings or as a guest house. A narrow road—also made of pervious paving material—curves through the serpentine arrangement of homes to assure access for emergency vehicles or to accommodate other situations, but the plan calls for residents to walk through the neighborhood, increasing opportunities for contact and relationship building, an intentional and essential aspect. Those involved prize that sense of belonging and are more than willing to forgo the convenience of a garage for the sake of more interaction with their neighbors, as well as reducing environmental impacts.

The rewards of perseverance

Although the development was far from finished when I saw it, Campbell’s household established itself on the property months ago, in the completely remodeled original farmhouse from which he functions as project manager for Clearwater Commons.  The continuously moving water of North Creek gurgles  along peacefully not far below his home’s deck, and during my tour he pointed out all the young starts of willows, cedars, hemlocks, and other trees and plants that will someday return the stream to the way it might have looked a hundred years ago. Anchored logs and manmade obstructions built of tree stumps and other natural debris help cause the moving water to carve out pools for salmon. The restoration included digging a side channel to alleviate flooding.

As we walked, we heard birds singing and the soothing sound of the creek, and I could tell that Campbell loved being there. The years of wrangling paperwork and permissions felt exhausting at the time, he admits. But the future looks bright. These days he focuses on marketing the development while happily anticipating life with neighbors who share the ideals behind the school that started it all: freedom, trust, and responsibility.

“That trust,” he said, “is, I think, fairly unique. We built a school together and we can build a community.”

 

 from Martha Hurwitz

 

 

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