Common ground Cohousing: A 27-acre site in Frederick County is about to be transformed into Liberty Village, a "cohousing" community in which 35 households will one day share much of everyday life.

December 29, 1996|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFFLIBERTY VILLAGE : SUN STAFF

For Merlin Porter-Borden, suburbia had lost its luster. Sprawling lots between houses seemed a metaphor for the distance between neighbors' lives, and the car only widened the gulf.

So Porter-Borden set about creating a vision of small-town America where everybody knows everybody else, where neighbors share meals, chores, child-rearing.

Now, seven years after he and his wife, Cathie, and other suburban and urban refugees began designing their vision of utopia -- by consensus -- construction crews are preparing to transform a 27-acre former farm in Frederick County.

Maryland's first "cohousing" community will blend Depression era-town, '60s commune and '80s condo. But perhaps what distinguishes it most is its outright rejection of the often-isolated life of suburbia as we know it.

In Liberty Village, 35 miles west of the Baltimore Beltway in Libertytown, residents will live in privately owned duplex houses, but gather in a larger "common house" owned by their homeowners association.

They'll govern themselves by consensus, forming committees for everything from gardening to cooking to maintaining the common house. They'll take turns cooking for mass gatherings, eat together, play together, share chores and help raise one another's children.

None of which Porter-Borden finds enough of on 3 acres east of Frederick, where he now lives in a big house with a three-car garage with his wife, a music teacher, and their two daughters.

"I realized there was something missing in the way we were living," said Porter-Borden, a 57-year-old civil engineer and founding member of the Libertytown cohousing group.

"Our friends were across town. We were exporting and importing our kids to be with kids. Our architects and builders have effectively killed community by their design. The design is around the auto, getting out of the car and into the house."

The sentiment seems to be spreading. Cohousing, like neo-traditional communities built to resemble small towns, reflects a growing backlash against suburbia.

In Maryland, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has declared war on the suburban sprawl that he blames for increased road congestion, pollution and taxes.

From Seattle to Florida, a new breed of planners, builders, architects and engineers envisions future "communities" that include mixed-income housing, jobs and stores residents can walk to from homes, less reliance on the automobile and more effective land and environmental conservation.

And while much of middle-class America converses in cyberspace, cocoons in home theaters, moves up and moves out, a growing number of homeowners are moving into cohousing communities where neighborliness rules.

Since the first one opened in the United States five years ago in Davis, Calif. -- modeled on Danish housing -- 14 communities have been built. Another 40 cohousing groups have bought land or are building their communities, while another 150 groups have formed.

The communities vary in location, amenities and design, but always have relatively small, private homes, shared common buildings and a layout planned by residents to bring people together. Residents own fully equipped homes linked by pedestrian pathways and clustered around a common house with a large kitchen, dining area and recreational space.

Four years ago, George and Naomi Davis heard about the Libertytown group. They were raising a family in Cedarcroft in North Baltimore, where they had lived for 13 years.

"We had a nice neighborhood where we did know the neighbors, in a sense," said Naomi Davis, a free-lance writer who teaches the two younger of three daughters at home. But "we wanted a place that felt safer, where there was more land. We wanted a place where you could interact on a more casual and easy basis, where you didn't have to get your house cleaned up to invite someone over."

Her husband, a budget analyst for the Maryland Port Administration, was sold on the idea after reading the book, "Cohousing, A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves," which quotes a cohousing resident as saying, "I know I live in a community because on Friday night it takes me 45 minutes and two beers to get from the parking lot to my front door."

In the quest to bring cohousing to Maryland, members of the Liberty Village Partnership have come and gone. Land deals have fallen through. And the months-long process of buying land; changing rural zoning to allow for clustered housing, designing and laying out homes; and getting permits and construction loans -- all done by the partners as a group -- has dragged on.

Still, the group that started with six families and single people has swelled and is now at 17 partners, from Frederick, Baltimore, Washington and New Jersey. They are two-parent families, single mothers and fathers, roommates and retired folks in a mix of ages and professions: dentist, architect, accountant, nurse, social worker, librarian.

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