Turning the Corner

Turning the Corner

W e pull off a dirt road and park our cars in an old farm field. Seven of us hike a grassy path past brambles and patchy snow to an open rise, where Dick Margulis points to a stone wall edged with trees. “The road will… come up along this line [and] skirt a couple of these big old oak trees that we’re saving,” he says. From there, it will loop around Connecticut’s first cohousing development.

After more than a decade of planning, the community known as Rocky Corner has finally broken ground on the site of an old dairy farm in Bethany, and 21 eager families and individuals—9 units are still available—are looking forward to a new, shared life which they hope will begin in late 2018 or early 2019.

Cohousing marries “the value of private homes with the benefits of more sustainable living,” according to the Cohousing Association of the United States. Residents own their own homes but share common spaces and cooperative relationships with their neighbors. The Rocky Corner brochure says cohousing came to the United States from Denmark in the 1980s, and today there are more than 100 “built and occupied” cohousing communities nationwide.

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It’s been a rocky road for this project, stretching back about 30 years to an attempt to create a similar community in or near New Haven, according to Margulis. One of just a few people from that original group who reconnected to create Rocky Corner, Margulis says between 70 and 80 percent of cohousing projects fail in the early stages. He attributes Rocky Corner’s success to the fact that “it was not a group of friends inviting their friends.” Instead, everyone involved in the project had already been researching and thinking about cohousing.

Still, there was a lot to learn. A consultant helped the group address their “flat” decision-making model by bringing in sociocracy, a system of committees clustered around a “general circle” and based on consent rather than voting. A housing consultant helped them deal with mountains of paperwork and regulations. There was also a lot to teach. As Connecticut’s first cohousing development, Margulis says, “We had to educate the bankers and the lawyers and the insurance companies and the appraisers and the state Department of Housing and the state Department of Public Health and the local Department of Health and the zoning board…”

As we stand under a blue sky mapped with clouds and gaze around us at the landscape that’s about to be transformed, I ask Margulis: Was there a point at which you realized this was actually going to happen? “Yeah, yesterday,” he replies with a laugh. “It has always been, ‘We’re going to be done with this process this year and building next year.’ It’s been that for five years. Now it’s actually happening, so it’s extremely exciting.” The group closed on their construction loan in late March, and ground is about to be broken.

Rocky Corner’s homes will range in size from one to three bedrooms, arranged in clusters of five homes. A common house will include a commercial kitchen, multipurpose/dining room, craft room, shop, activity room, conservatory, lounge and laundry room. The plan for the 33-acre site also includes a shared garden and additional farmland which members can lease from the community. Bordered by pastoral land owned by the Bethany Land Trust, Regional Water Authority and Yale University, the location off Old Amity Road suits Rocky Cornerites, who aspire to “return to the spirit of agricultural communities past, where neighbors help neighbors to live off the land in a sustainable manner,” as their brochure puts it.

Other sustainable elements of the project include solar panels on every roof, air-sourced heat pumps for heating and cooling and the potential for sharing everything from cars to garden tools. “You don’t need 30 lawnmowers or 30 snowblowers,” Margulis says.

Future resident DJ Zullo was skeptical at first about the cohousing concept. “I had some preconceptions [about] everyone being on top of each other,” he says, “but you really have your own space, and you can be as involved with the community as you want to be.” DJ and his wife, Seasen, the parents of two young children, moved to Connecticut from Florida three years ago to join the Rocky Corner project.

“My kids want to be outside,” says Seasen, who describes herself as a “city girl.” “They want to be in the woods, they want to be in the water… I don’t know if we would be equipped to do it on our own. We’re not running out to buy a farm, you know? But to be able to do this with people who have the know-how and learn and teach and experience it together—it’s what we’re most excited about.”

Different cohousing communities have different focuses, Margulis says, and the focus on farming is one thing that makes Rocky Corner unique among other communities of its kind. All 30 homes at Rocky Corner will share the costs of the land purchase, as well as site construction, financing, engineering, legal fees and other general items, but members will pay individually for their own homes, with price tags ranging from $358,000 to $423,000. The cost is lower for 13 of the homes, which are permanently designated state-subsidized affordable housing units. According to the Rocky Corner website, the prices “reflect only the actual cost to build; we are our own developers, so no one is making a profit from the sales of the homes.”

The cost of shared amenities means Rocky Corner’s modest housing looks pricey, but Margulis says cohousing has been shown to hold its value well over time. The communities evolve, he says, but what remains is a commitment among residents to live together. “You don’t have to have everything in your own house and have a wall at the property boundary,” he says. “That’s a way some people want to live, but the people who want to live that way are not coming to cohousing.”

There will be more boundaries to negotiate as Rocky Corner’s residents move in and tackle the decisions, large and small, of building a new community together, but no one seems worried. Bring on the bulldozers; Rocky Corner is ready.

Rocky Corner
Along Old Amity Rd, Bethany (map)
(203) 903-2646 | info@rockycorner.org
www.rockycorner.org

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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