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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.


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.

Finally, they are ready to build on their Liberty Road site, next to a 105-acre public park. Early in 1997, they plan to put up the first 20 homes, which will be constructed this winter in modular sections in a factory. The partnership, which is the developer, plans to complete the project over three years.

When complete, Liberty Village will have 34 duplex units and one detached house, with front porches, basements and flexibility in the number of bedrooms. Kitchens have been designed in the front of the house, so residents who spend a lot of time there can keep up with goings-on outside.

Homes are expected to cost between $100,000 and $160,000. Partners have invested at least $6,000 up front toward the project.

The residents designed their 4,500-square-foot common house with a dining room and kitchen, where residents might share meals several times a week, children's and teens' room, lounge, craft room, guest rooms, sun room, laundry, workshop, TV room, exercise room, deck with hot tub, outdoor play area and, eventually, a year-round pool.

The automobile has its place -- but not in the community. Vehicles will be kept on parking lots on the periphery, except for an emergency lane circling the little village.

Sixteen acres of the site will remain open for gardening or jogging.

Though she liked the idea of keeping cars away from the houses -- and away from playing children and strolling adults -- Beth Arnone felt torn about the arrangement at first. It would mean using a hand-pulled cart to haul groceries and packages from the car to the house.

Besides that, her new home would be smaller than the three-bedroom, two-car house in northeast Baltimore's Beverly Hills neighborhood, where her family now lives. The move wouldn't be the typical "move up" to a bigger house. But, after getting to know the people who would be her new neighbors, she and her husband willingly made those compromises, and others that come with making decisions as a large group.

"It's challenging," but worth it, said Arnone, a nurse midwife who plans to continue her current commute to St. Agnes Hospital.

"The real need for community overwhelmed the need for a large house," she said. "It's exciting to get to know people on a deeper level. It's rewarding to have a lot of close relationships in your life. My children will be raised in an environment where people work hard to get along."

Indeed, working to get along will be as much a part of the Liberty Village lifestyle as community meals. Decision-making as a group, which has so far involved planning the community, will continue once the community is complete.

The partners got help in making some of their biggest decisions -- designing common house features -- from one of the foremost experts on cohousing, architect Charles R. Durrett. Durrett and his wife, architect Kathryn McCamant, studied cohousing in Europe and wrote the "Cohousing" book.

On a recent sunny Sunday, during one of the monthly public tours of Liberty Village, Libertytown resident Linda Luke visited and walked the site. Wooden stakes mark spots in the grass where the first 17 houses and the common house will go. A 243-year-old brick manor house, an original part of the farm, is for sale to help finance the community.

Luke and her husband had built a new house five years ago on 2 acres nearby. But her new Liberty Village neighbors have won her over to what she now views as a more sensible way to live, one that is more environmentally and emotionally friendly.

"We lose a lot by not having that 'village'," said the mother of two. "This seems much more ideal."

She is considering buying in Liberty Village, she said. But she has yet to persuade her husband to give up the big house and yard that for most people constitute the American dream.

For just that reason, many housing experts believe that cohousing won't ever catch on in a big way with the mainstream homebuyer.

That doesn't worry Liberty Village partners, still looking for another 18 families to join over the next couple of years. In fact, many of the first 17 partners say their village would work just as well with just 20 families, the number allowed in the first phase.

"Now I live alone," said Tom Lofft, a community planner and project manager for Liberty Village. "Living in cohousing will be an opportunity to have a lot more friendships with people I'll see on a day-to-day basis. Nobody is here because they need a new home. What they need or want is a different lifestyle, a lifestyle that has more of a connection to people than the one they have now."

For information on Liberty Village, write to Liberty Village Cohousing, 5715 Bells Lane, Frederick, Md. 21704, or call 366-5109 in Baltimore or 301 662-3218 in Frederick.

Pub Date: 12/29/96

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