It Takes a Village to Raise a Ruckus

One man's dream of creating South Florida's first "co-housing" project has his neighbors raising the roof

Dana Bennett dreams of living in a place without ill will, distrust, or hostility among neighbors.

To make that dream come true, he's sunk years of his life and thousands of dollars into the building of a new form of living arrangement -- one that holds the hope of providing a haven from some of the more distasteful by-products of the residential rootlessness that permeates South Florida. In an age and a region in which the norm is to live surrounded by strangers behind locked doors, Bennett is creating a village in which neighbors will truly be friends.

And now, just as he stands on the brink of finally realizing his dream, he's discovering that the result of his efforts has been... well, a lot of ill will, distrust, and hostility among neighbors.

Bennett is a 46-year-old former Greenpeace activist who now works full-time as the project coordinator for Synergy Cohousing, a group of like-minded South Floridians intent on creating a "co-housing community" on a 3.6-acre parcel of land in Delray Beach. Co-housing, a concept that first began in Denmark in the '70s, is a way of organizing life along the lines of a traditional village, in which residents share chores, meals, child care, and front-porch time. The goal is to create "the sort of neighborhood that's filled with spontaneous conversations and potluck dinners and times spent with friends," says Corey Yugler, a working mom who has been part of Synergy since its beginning. Although the co-housing idea has been catching on in recent years (a Web search turned up more than 150 co-housing communities built or being built across the country), Synergy Cohousing would be the first of its kind in South Florida.

In some respects 1998 has been a pretty good year for Synergy. In April the group received a go-ahead from the Palm Beach County Commission after months of wrangling over zoning regulations that fail to account for the possibility that someone might want to build a four-acre neighborhood and leave out the streets. (Cars won't be allowed inside the community.)

Now, with the regulatory battle in hand, the only large task remaining is to sell enough units to qualify for a construction loan. So far 15 of Synergy's planned 32 units are spoken for, and the group needs 9 more buyers before it can break ground on the project's residences at prices ranging from $90,000 to $215,000.

In other ways, though, the year hasn't been quite as good. Just over Synergy's property line lies a sprawling, conventional subdivision of 95 homes, in the $140,000 to $160,000 range, called Aspen Ridge. And lately some very unneighborly comments have been coming out of Aspen Ridge's look-alike suburb.

"I'd have very serious concerns about putting my money into one of these 'units,'" sniffs Jan Bocskai, president of the Aspen Ridge Homeowners Association. "I don't think I'd be able to resell it for the same price."

Ouch. For a group in the middle of a hard-fought, costly campaign to attract buyers (Synergy has even hired its own public relations firm to boost sales), that sort of comment really hurts.

Bocskai's crack about resale values isn't the only verbal grenade the association has recently lobbed over the property line. Aspen Ridge homeowners have also complained that the Synergy village would pack too many people into a too-small parcel; that the Synergy parking lot would sit too close to the Aspen Ridge access road; that Synergy residences would crowd the property line; and that Synergy sewage would overload the utility easement both developments must share.

Bennett says he and his partners, in the spirit of true synergy, have bent over backward to mollify, make friends with, and not annoy their future neighbors. Just because they want to create their own village doesn't mean they want to enclose it in a moat. "We invited (Aspen Ridge homeowners) to our planning sessions, we tried to introduce ourselves. We never, ever, ever wanted to get off on the wrong foot with any of our neighbors."

In fact, the group's make-nice efforts began the moment they bought the parcel five years ago. Shortly afterward the four families spearheading the group invited Aspen Ridge homeowners to a meet-and-greet at which they introduced themselves and enthused about their plans for the property. They may, in fact, have been a little too enthusiastic. "As innocent and excited as we were, we probably overdid it, talking about multicultural this and intergenerational that," Bennett says.

"It was awful," recalls Yugler, who also was at the meeting. "Here we thought we were such nice people with such a great idea, how could they not embrace us." Instead of giving hugs, "people shouted at us. They told us we were a commune. They shouted, 'We don't want you!' It was very uncivil. I almost started crying."

Of that meeting Bocskai recalls only that a lot of her neighbors came away with the impression they were about to be beset by "old hippies, you know, trying to continue that lifestyle." Certainly, she quickly adds, there's nothing "immoral or illegal" about being an old hippie.

In any case the Synergy partners' explanation of the co-housing concept may not have been as clear as they had hoped. After the meeting the homeowners association came up with what it apparently considered a welcoming proposal: How about if you folks go ahead and build your village, and then let Aspen Ridge annex the property?

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