New way of living in Md.

Community: The planning took 10 years, but Liberty Village, the state's first cohousing development, is finally under construction near Libertytown.

July 07, 1999|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Nearly 10 years after a Frederick County group gathered to plan a new kind of community where residents live close together and share meals and chores, the first cohousing development in Maryland is under construction.

Delayed by the search for a site, the quest for residents and an obstacle course of development and zoning regulations, Liberty Village finally is rising out of a 23-acre field on the edge of Libertytown, just east of Frederick.

Merlin and Cathie Porter-Borden have been waiting longer than most. Since reading about the cohousing plan in a newsletter distributed by a local food co-operative, they have seen their two children grow from toddlers to teens. But the Frederick couple stayed with the project, hoping it would bring them a better life.

By most standards, they had achieved the American Dream: a house with a three-car garage and a large yard, shielded from their neighbors by tall pine trees.

But something was missing. "We wanted more community," said Cathie Porter-Borden, 47, who teaches voice lessons.

Then, they heard about cohousing where residents live close together, park their cars at the edge of the community, jointly make decisions about the neighborhood and dine and play in a common building.

While the 38-house development has raised a few eyebrows in the farming community, Liberty Village's future residents stress that they are not aging hippies building a commune.

Five years ago, the future residents of Liberty Village ponied up $425,000 to buy a 200-year-old house and 27 acres near Libertytown. They sold the house and 4 acres for $325,000, raising money to get the development started.

Each family will have its own house -- mostly duplexes ranging in size from 900 to 2,000 square feet and equipped with kitchens, laundries and all the usual accouterments except garages.

A common house in the center of the community will include a dining hall, recreation rooms, a woodworking shop and laundry facilities for those who prefer to socialize while washing their clothes.

Facing a divorce in Vermont, Sheila Braun showed up recently at Liberty Village with her son, Daniel, 2. "It's hard to do the single mother thing in the suburbs," said Braun, who is eight months pregnant with her second child.

She had heard about cohousing on National Public Radio and visited a cohousing community in Vermont before coming to the hot, dusty field where Liberty Village is under construction.

"I live in a regular development, and it's amazing how little the people know each other," she said.

She has learned that each co- housing community has its distinctive identity. One in Vermont focused on the environment and conservation, discouraging disposable diapers and clothes dryers.

Cathie Porter-Borden said she believes cohousing emphasizes respect for children and the elderly. Her mother-in-law, 92, will be the community's oldest resident.

"It's a wonderful place to grow older," Porter-Borden said. "The community will take care of her."

Begun in Denmark more than 20 years ago, cohousing was introduced in the United States in 1991 with a community in Oakland, Calif. Today, 40 to 50 cohousing communities are occupied, another four dozen are under construction and 100 are being planned, said Ronald Petralito, the Liberty Village's architect whose houses are designed to adapt to changing families with rooms suitable for bedrooms, offices or family rooms.

Carrie Burmaster, 47, said she was living in her dream home in Anneslie in Baltimore County and had spent $60,000 decorating it. Cohousing sounded interested, but she didn't want to drive nearly an hour to her job at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, where she heads the counseling center.

But on a lark, she attended one of Liberty Village's planning sessions and visited the site.

"I was immediately hooked," she said. Single and childless, Burmaster was attracted by the sense of family cohousing could provide. "Now I feel like I've got lots of kids. I can get involved in lots of kids' lives."

Liberty Village doesn't offer the cheapest housing in the area. A one-bedroom duplex starts at $135,000 and the most expensive model goes for $220,000. Monthly homeowners association fees are $75 a month.

The difference between Liberty Village and the typical suburban development is the commitment residents make to get to know each other and communicate openly, Burmaster said.

That is not to say there haven't been disputes. In the decade it has taken them to start building their community, members have come and gone. Some disliked property the group tried to buy. Others grew tired of waiting for a home.

The look of the community has also changed from the townhouses originally envisioned to duplexes, although there will be a couple of single family homes. Twenty lots have been sold or reserved.

While anyone can buy a house in Liberty Village, future residents so far have similar demographic profiles and interests. All are white and most are professionals in their 40s and 50s.

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