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?

To Bennett and his partners, it sounded as if the Aspen Ridge homeowners had somehow missed the point of co-housing. "They wanted us to build six homes that looked exactly like the others in Aspen Ridge. I don't think they understood what we were talking about."

Perhaps, he believes, intentionally so.
Bocskai, says Bennett, is "one of those people who act really friendly to you at first and then turn out to be completely different. She started out so wonderful, so cooperative, and then she stood up [at a Palm Beach County Commission meeting] and tried to turn the commission against us. There were references to children breaking into homes and all sorts of weird stuff. One guy stood up and said, 'Look, these people will eventually be procreating.' None of us knew quite how to take that. Everybody was silent."

Bocskai says her concern isn't procreation; it's "infiltration." Although "the people I've met are nice enough," she worries that someday the group may be penetrated by "some unique unknown element out there" -- an element that might not be as nice as the folks she already knows.

Over the past two years, both neighborhoods -- the one in place and one on its way -- have come closer to an agreement that there are just some things they are going to have to disagree on. And both sides say respect for the other side has grown. "They're nice people, you can't take that away from them," says Theresa Cirillo, former president of the Aspen Ridge association.

In response to Aspen Ridge complaints, Synergy agreed to pull its buildings five feet farther away from the property line. And the group agreed to move its parking lot. The only remaining sticking point concerns the sewage utility easement, which lays on the opposite side of the access road to Aspen Ridge. If Synergy wants to connect to it, the road will probably have to be torn up during the work. "I can empathize with their not wanting to be put through that," Bennett says.

For her part Bocskai says she has no problem with the Synergy folks themselves, as persons. "At first I wondered a little, but now I view them as a group of professionals who have a particular desire to have a close-knit community."

She just wishes they'd clean up after themselves. For weeks now there's been a huge tree branch lying in the middle of an old tennis court on the Synergy plot, and "it's an eyesore. I can understand them thinking, 'Why should we maintain it when we're just going to build on it anyway?' But still..." Bennett promises that the tree branch will be gone by the time this story hits the street.

There is one last area in which the two groups have found common agreement: "We insist on there being a row of shrubbery along the property line," Bocskai says. "It's a divider." Not a word of dissent to this proposal was heard from the Synergy camp. Sometimes even the most synergistic of neighbors require at least one good fence.

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