BRUNSWICK, Maine — When Truman Welch, an Episcopal minister, was ready to retire from his longtime position as a parish priest in an urban neighborhood outside of Boston, he faced a dilemma.
“I had spent 43 years living in very close community with people of all ages,” he said. “When I retired, I was drawn to the idea of a life that provided the possibility of solitude. But I also needed some community around me. I was anxious about leading an isolated life.”
At Two Echo Cohousing in Brunswick, Welch, 69, found just the right balance — an intimate neighborhood of like-minded individuals and families of all ages, living in a village-like setting in the Maine countryside and committed to a philosophy of collaborative problem solving, sustainable living and good-neighborliness.
According to the Cohousing Association of the United States, cohousing is a form of “intentional community” characterized by privately owned homes clustered around shared space and, usually, surrounded by undeveloped land. This clustered design not only reduces the environmental and infrastructure effect of the project, but it also intentionally promotes social interaction among the residents.
In cohousing, the goal is to bring neighbors together regularly for meals, celebrations and other group activities, as well as for the serious business of collaborative community-building, policy-making and problem-solving. Most groups aim for consensus in all decisions, from permitting a member to build a porch to restricting gun ownership on the property. This deliberative process allows for a satisfying resolution on issues affecting the group, proponents say, though it can prove frustrating for those seeking quick action.
Cohousing members typically own their homes’ interiors but not the exterior. They may or may not own the ground the building rests upon. Each home is equipped with traditional amenities, including a private kitchen and an outdoor area for gardens and lawns. Shared space typically includes a central “common house” for community meals and other activities, along with parking areas, roadways, open space and larger gardens. Members often share resources such as power tools and lawnmowers. Along with their individual utility bills, they pay a monthly maintenance fee, similar to a condominium or homeowners’ association fee.
Cohousing bylaws strongly encourage residents to actively participate in group activities, including community meals, organized maintenance projects, committee work and governance meetings. Tasks such as child care, elder care and shared transportation are often prioritized in cohousing relationships, and multigenerational groups are considered optimal.
Maine has just two established cohousing communities: Two Echo Cohousing in Brunswick, which took shape in the late 1990s, and Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage in Belfast, which broke ground in 2011. The two share basic principles, but there are important differences, too.
Two Echo Cohousing
At Two Echo Cohousing, a total of 27 homes, ranging in size from 700 square feet to 2,300 square feet and including a few duplexes, are clustered close together at one end of a large field, the site of a former dairy farm. Though the house designs vary, there is a traditional New England feel to the grouping. The houses are connected by a meandering loop of tree-lined gravel roadway and surrounded by more than 70 acres of rolling fields and woods. About 45 adults live here, along with 28 youngsters ranging from infancy through college age.
At the center of the circle of homes stands the common house, a spacious two-story building with a well-outfitted community kitchen and a big dining room used for regular weekly shared dinners as well as birthday parties and other special events. The common house also provides smaller rooms for reading or meeting, a children’s playroom and overflow sleeping quarters for visitors.
Most houses at Two Echo have no adjoining garage, no driveway and no on-street parking. Residents leave their vehicles in assigned garage units outside the loop of homes and walk or bicycle a short distance to their doorways. This keeps down noise and exhaust fumes and minimizes the danger to pets, pedestrians and children, according to resident Betty Libby, 66.
“This is a fabulous environment for children,” she said.
Older residents at Two Echo, she said, deeply value the day-to-day presence of children and wouldn’t be happy living in an age-restricted retirement community.
According to Amy Tolk, a founding member of Two Echo, there are several younger families in the community. About a dozen youngsters attend Brunswick schools. They participate in sports and other school-based activities, bring their friends home for sleepovers and are a cherished presence in the close-knit cohousing community. But many homeowners are middle-aged or older, including a few longtimers like her and more recent arrivals like Welch.
Tolk, 57, flinched at the suggestion that co-housing is like a well-appointed commune for established adults.
“This is not a commune at all,” she said. “It’s more like a condominium or a homeowners’ association.”
Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage
The Belfast project shares many of Two Echo’s attributes. Houses are clustered together on a few acres, enveloped in a larger parcel of open fields, gardens and woods. Garages are on the perimeter, and footpaths connect the homes and gardens. Generations mingle and meet in group activities. Members work together for consensus in their affairs. The common house is nearing completion.
But the Belfast project has an important difference: Its buildings were all designed and constructed at the same time, by the same builder, with a commitment to green construction and cutting-edge, energy-efficient design. The result is a less traditional-looking group of buildings with exacting standards for maximum energy conservation, including the use of thick, blown-in insulation and triple-glazed windows.
The Belfast group also is notable for the serendipitous alignment of many members’ spiritual affiliation and life philosophies. Several families are members of the Belfast Unitarian Universalist Church; others are Quakers.
Don and Fran Pan moved here four years ago from Mystic, Connecticut, where they had raised their children and lived in the same home for 40 years. They looked at several other cohousing projects before settling in Belfast.
“We just liked the people here,” said Don Pan, 71. “I am a Buddhist, and it was important to me to be somewhere where there was a sangha” — a community of Buddhists, as there is in Belfast.
“I found there were others here with a spiritual orientation, not necessarily religious, but with a recognition of the importance of the nonmaterial world,” he said.
Nuts and bolts, and a cautionary tale
The concept of cohousing developed in Denmark about 20 years ago. It is more popular in Europe than in the U.S., but there are hundreds of communities in existence in this country, in both rural and urban settings.
Developing a successful cohousing project is hard, time-consuming work, and many projects fail because of it, including in Maine.
Leaders in the Belfast and Brunswick groups both spent several years researching the options, visiting other cohousing projects, working with local zoning boards, refining their values and resolving conflicting goals to arrive at a working plan. The protracted effort resulted in the loss of several interested families, increasing the financial and logistical burden on those who remained.
It also is costly, requiring a critical mass of committed startup members who can not only finance the initial land purchase and development but also contribute to community infrastructure such as roads, wells, power, septic and other needs. On top of that, founding members must buy or build their own homes in keeping with the project’s design.
Kitsy Winthrop, 77, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister living in Portland, spent about three years in weekly meetings with a dozen like-minded people interested in developing a cohousing project in the Damariscotta area. Most were, like her, at retirement age or older.
Eventually, they pooled their resources and, for about $900,000 cash, they purchased a large summer estate on the Damariscotta River that included two houses, along with some garages, a greenhouse and other outbuildings. Their plan was to develop the existing houses into condominium-like units, but they ran afoul of local zoning restrictions and spent another four years trying, unsuccessfully, to win approval for their project.
Other problems cropped up in the meantime.
“As time went on and we got closer as a group, it became clear that we had different ideas about the meaning of ‘intentional community,’” she said. “For instance, some people wanted to have community suppers three nights a week, but I wanted more than that; I wanted dinner together every night. Also, I was aging, and others in the group were older than I was. We were miles from the nearest hospital, and we realized we couldn’t look after each other to the grave.
“This thing was only going to work if we brought in young people to take our place and help with the work on the property,” Winthrop said. “Plus, we all wanted a multi-age community anyway, with children around.”
But efforts to recruit younger families to the project were unsuccessful, in part, she said, because it was so expensive to get involved.
Finally, Winthrop said, “I realized that not only had I plunked down most of my old-age funds to purchase this property, but if we ever got the permits, I would be paying another $200,000 to buy the 800-square-foot master bedroom suite that had my name on it.”
Others in the group reached the same hard truth, and reluctantly, in 2006, they decided to sell.
“I only lost about $5,000, and it was worth it for everything I learned,” Winthrop said.
Now she owns her own apartment in a Portland condominium building, close to congenial neighbors, the cultural activities she enjoys and the services she needs.
“I couldn’t be happier,” she said.
As in any community, people do move on from cohousing. Sometimes, it’s because they find the groupthink atmosphere oppressive or can’t come to terms with neighbors over a hot-button issue, such as gun ownership or building an addition. Some people find they miss the convenience of living in town and the ability to walk to shops, restaurants and services. Most often, organizers say, it’s the more common issues of job-related relocation, downsizing after retirement or moving closer to adult children.
When members leave a cohousing community, their house is sold on the regular real estate market. Prospective buyers are asked to meet with residents several times and participate in community events to ensure a good fit.
Legally, communities cannot prevent anyone from buying a home and cannot require them to take part in activities.
“But it would be peculiar,” said Truman Welch at Two Echo, “to move here, knowing what this place is about, and not intend to participate.”
Established homes in Maine’s cohousing projects sell for about what they would in the larger community, or higher. At Two Echo, prices generally run from $200,000 to $300,000, depending on square footage, condition and other considerations. A 1,212-square-foot duplex is listed at $189,000. Welch paid about $319,000 for his three bedroom, two-bath home there.
“Coming from the Boston real estate market, I thought it was a steal,” he said.
At Belfast Cohousing, a 780-square-foot “eco-flat” is priced at $218,000, while a 1,300-square-foot duplex is $340,000. Residents at the Belfast community point out that while these prices are high, the cost is offset by the extreme energy efficiency of their homes.
In both settings, homeowners pay a monthly fee that covers access road maintenance, snow plowing, exterior home repairs and other costs. At Two Echo, the monthly fee this year is $155 per household. In Belfast, the fee varies with the size of the home; the average fee for the coming year is $223.
A place to stay young
Steve Chiasson, 63, a founding member at Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage, said the arduous process and lessons learned in developing the project have resulted in a community he and his wife, Barbara, expect to call home for years to come. Although they have a lot invested financially, low energy costs mean their month-to-month living expenses are “very manageable,” he said.
“On top of that, I have a nice tight, warm home at an age when it really matters to me. In the winter, I can close my front door and walk away without worrying about my pipes freezing,” he said. “And it’s good for my kids to know I’m in a community where people look in on me and know what’s going on in my life.”
Even more importantly, the experience of helping create the community he lives in, the responsibility of shaping it going forward in the company of thoughtful, values-driven neighbors “helps me feel more relevant and engaged,” he said. “And we all know that staying active, physically and mentally, keeps us healthier as we age.”