Sharing, caring are forces behind communal concept

`Cohousing' is based on joint planning, regular interaction Good fences, good neighbors? Not according to these folks

March 25, 2001|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Bill Press and Marie Allee live on a picturesque street in Catonsville lined with old trees and scrupulously maintained homes. They have a 4-year-old daughter, a baby on the way, two cats and a dog.

But they want to be part of a community instead of a family in a house on a nice street. So, in September 1999, they began meeting with others who share their vision of creating a new type of neighborhood -- where residents have a role in its planning and interact on a regular basis by preparing meals and doing chores together.

"The people we meet here are nice, but we don't know them that well, and it doesn't seem to be that easy to get to know them," said Press, 38, an information technology consultant and member of a group working to build a "cohousing" community in Baltimore County. "We wanted a safe, supportive place to have a family and a way to feel that you're part of something, that you belong to something."

In a cohousing community, residents live close together -- but separately -- and have the use of a common house for meals or recreation. Design elements intended to encourage friendly encounters include front porches, walkways and community gardens.

Supporters say that cohousing provides an alternative to what they see as the increasing isolation of the suburbs and a way to live in a diverse, cooperative community. It originated in Denmark more than 20 years ago and was introduced in the United States in 1991 with a community in Oakland, Calif.

"It seems to be filling a need that no other movement offers, a balance of privacy and community," said Zev Paiss, executive director of the Colorado-based Cohousing Network, a nonprofit that promotes such projects.

In and around Maryland, cohousing has seen a surge of interest. Besides the Baltimore County effort, another group is searching for a site in Annapolis.

And the state's first cohousing community, Liberty Village in Frederick County, has seven families who have moved in during the past year after a decade of planning.

The Baltimore-Washington area "is a little hotbed of cohousing," said Ann Zabaldo, a consultant who helps groups organize cohousing projects in the region. In December, she moved into Takoma Village, the first cohousing community in Washington, where 75 percent of the units were sold before construction started.

The Baltimore County group, which comprises six to eight households, meets twice a month to discuss their project's progress and to socialize, usually over a potluck supper. They're looking for land in Catonsville or Towson on which to build 20 to 30 homes, as well as a common house for group activities. The group charges a $100 membership fee and a $25 monthly contribution for expenses.

"I grew tired of living in an environment where it's chance whether there's going to be a strong sense of community or not," said Carrie Burmaster, who organized the Baltimore group.

Nationwide, there are 46 completed cohousing communities, 20 under construction and 130 in the planning stages, according to the Cohousing Network.

Paiss said that making cohousing a viable option for more people would require the involvement of more developers and other building professionals, as well as government help with zoning and funding to provide affordable communities. Generally, cohousing units are sold at market rates.

Burmaster, director of counseling with the University of Maryland, Baltimore, initially was interested in moving to Liberty Village but decided against it because of the long commute. She got in touch with Press and Allee -- who also had considered the Frederick community -- and pitched the idea of starting a group near Baltimore.

"I'm a single person, and I certainly don't possess the whole repertoire of skills which one needs to take care of a house," Burmaster said. "It'll be really nice to have someone next door who can hang some shelves for me, and I really love the idea of being involved with the children of the community."

She bristles at the suggestion that cohousing is the commune for a new millennium. "What this is, is typical middle-class people who are simply looking for more community in their lives," she said.

Members of the Baltimore and Annapolis cohousing groups range in age from late 30s to mid-60s and tend to be well-educated suburbanites in various professions, including college professor, cook, psychologist and nurse. The ability to compromise is a prerequisite.

"If you're the type of person who always wants to get your own way about everything, this isn't for you," Burmaster said.

The Baltimore and Annapolis groups are seeking members, but they realize that many won't sign on until sites are chosen. In contrast with Liberty Village and most early projects, where residents handled the land purchase, zoning permits and hiring of contractors, the Baltimore and Annapolis groups have joined with a developer.

They hope to speed up the process, with an estimated two-year timeline, from purchase of a property to completion.

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