Cohousing communities: Where the heart is

Photo by Scooter MacMillan
From left, twins Cassie and Tabitha Bastress put down mulch on the garden at Ten Stones Community. Cassie has big plans for the CSA that she’s started to market her veggies. While Tabitah is clear that she’s just helping and isn’t interested in a full-time position in the garden.

Staff Writer

When Julia Cavanagh moved to Champlain Valley Cohousing, one of two cohousing communities in Charlotte, she was amazed at how quickly her 5-year-old daughter learned to ride a bike.

Her daughter saw the children riding bikes and she was ready to go with them. There were a lot of children with bike riding skills to show her how. She learned in a day.

Ken French, who lives in Ten Stones Community, the other Charlotte cohousing community, saw much of the same in his son.

French says that he feels like his son learned how to work in groups through his experiences growing up in the cohousing community.

“What I think he got from growing up here was a call to activism and his creativity,” he said.

French has lived in Ten Stones since 1996, two years after homes started being constructed there. His son is grown now and lives in New York where he’s a musician and does corporate song branding.

Cavanagh’s daughters were 3 and 5 when they moved to Champlain Valley Cohousing. They’re 5 and 7 now and in that time she’s “seen their self-confidence skyrocket,” she said.

The children in her cohousing community “have a rare, safe kind of independence,” Cavanagh said. “From their perspective, they have all kinds of play time on their own, but from the parents’ perspective, they have lots of monitored play time.”

If an adult sees a child riding without a helmet, they’re likely to say something like, “Where’s your helmet? Do you want some help finding it?” she said.

Less driving, more socializing

Cavanagh really relishes her intentional, supportive community. She likes that she doesn’t have to drive her children to playdates.

“So many families are stressed out because they have to drive everywhere,” she said. Cavanagh said that before they moved to Champlain Valley Cohousing from Rhode Island that even socializing as a family was a chore. 

“It would take weeks to plan and then have to plop your kids in the car and drive 20 or 30 minutes. Everybody’s melting down. And you’re like: ‘Is this even worth it?’”

Recently, she was outside talking to neighbors, and they asked what she was doing for dinner. Right there on the spot, they decided to do dinner together. And they just walked to the other family’s house.

Both of the Charlotte cohousing communities are on Greenbush Road – Champlain Valley Cohousing is almost 3 miles south of West Charlotte and Ten Stones is roughly 4 miles north.

They both have a homeowners’ association. Residents commit to required hours of community work. Neither of the Charlotte cohousing communities has a penalty for not volunteering, but residents said that people volunteer without any penalties or threats.

Both Champlain Valley and Ten Stones have a community water and septic system. Dues are assessed to help pay for water, septic and other infrastructure needs.

Residents do a lot of community maintenance work themselves but dues pay for some work the community can’t do, like heavy road work or snow plowing. They decide as a community how to budget the community money collected from dues.

The end of 13,000-mile road

After Wolfger Schneider retired from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory outside of Baltimore, Md., he took to the road. He drove 13,000 miles around the country. He spent a week at Champlain Valley Cohousing and he said, “I got on my bicycle and looked around.”

He liked what he saw. Schneider moved to Champlain Valley Cohousing in 2010, five year after home-building had begun there.

About 22 homes are in the Champlain Valley Cohousing community but they have room for around four more families.

They have two units with three attached homes and two with four attached homes. The rest are single family homes.

French said that it took Ten Stones Community a lot of time and work with the town of Charlotte to get permits 25 years ago. It was the first cohousing community in a town where in most areas, five acres are required per house. It was hard to get the town to understand that, although they wanted to build houses in a cluster of half-acre lots around a central green, there would still be lots of undeveloped woods and meadows.

Ten Stones Community has about 80 acres of community-owned land, about half of that is used for community projects like farming, the septic system, a ground-based solar-energy array and half is open space preserved by a land trust.

Ten Stones has 12 houses and one duplex. Originally, it was permitted for 10 houses, but they got their original permit revised to allow three more buildings a few years ago. They used the profit from those added homes to build a community center where they can hold meetings and community meals.

Champlain Valley Cohousing also has a cluster of homes on smaller lots surrounding a central green where children play or the residents barbecue. Of the development’s 125 acres about 115 acres are community-owned property of meadows and forests.

Cohousing movement’s beginning

Schneider said that there are a number of trails for community members, but the trails also include a public trail, the Charlotte Town Trail. When completed, the Charlotte Town Trail is planned to go to the Town Beach. Now, the trail begins at Champlain Valley Cohousing and runs to Mt. Philo.

The cohousing movement began in Denmark in the 1960s. According to the Cohousing Association of the United States’ website there are almost 300 cohousing communities in the U.S. and nine of those are in Vermont. In Chittenden County, there is one other in Burlington.

As you leave Ten Stones, you pass the community garden. Individual plots are farmed by individual families and Cassie Bastress, a seventh grader at Charlotte Central School, is growing a variety of vegetables including cabbage, broccoli, potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots and beets. She’s formed a CSA (community-supported agriculture) to sell the veggies of her labor. On this day, her twin sister Tabitha is helping her, but she didn’t want to share in the workload that would come with committing to helping run the CSA.

Cassie said she didn’t have any plans for the money she hopes to earn, she just plans to save it.

“She never spends money,” Tabitha said incredulously.

When the twins were ready for a break from their farm work, they jumped on their bikes and sped off right down the middle of the road in the Ten Stones Community. No need to ride on the side of the road. There weren’t any cars.

At Champlain Valley Community, Schneider talked about how quiet and safe it is.

“The only traffic we have here is UPS and American Express.”

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