Turning farmland into a residential community is nothing new. Orange County, with its abundance of rural meadows and wooded acres has seen its fair share of land transformed into neighborhoods with driveways and avenues. It’s neighbor, Mebane, has become something of a boomtown, with complexes of multifamily and single-family homes shooting up from the ground where crops of vegetables once did.
The founders and backers of Common Ground EcoVillage have a plan for building homes on a 112-acre plot of rolling meadows and forested land between Hillsborough and Mebane. But unlike typical developments where farmlands make way for buildings, this development, which has been in the works since 2008, will make farming — or at least a very large community garden — a central feature of its community.
“The farming part is crucial to the Common Ground Ecovillage,” said Lisa Berley, who is a member of the community. “Not all intentional communities have farms or big vegetable gardening going on. I don’t know if this defines an ecovillage, but its going to be a source of the vegetables eaten by the group.”
The plan for the development calls for up to 32 homes of varying sizes, but all on the relatively small side. “The largest home is going to be about 1,800 square feet,” Berley said. “That’s the biggest. There’s going to be more with a smaller design.”
Part of the reason for the smaller homes is the Common House, which in another type of community might be called the clubhouse. It will have a large communal kitchen, laundry facilities, meeting and event space and several guest rooms.
“The common house is really important in the scheme of Common Ground Ecovillage,” she said. “Not only as support to these smaller houses, but also for social reasons: people seeing each other, crossing paths, having a place to go to outside of their homes where other people are and being around other people. I think that’s a very big difference between living in a neighborhood where a lot of us live in single-family houses. You have neighbors, but you don’t have this sort of designed way of people being together.”
The homes will be clustered with small yards, leaving much of the property natural and barely touched. The members have created walking trails and thinned out some trees in the wooded areas to help control invasive species. A large majority of the site will be permanently protected for agriculture, forestry, and natural habitat through easements, deed restrictions and/or trusts.
The purchase of the land was done over several years and completed in 2017, through financial support from Common Ground Ecovillage membership. To this date, there are no homes built on the land, but the group has enlisted the services of engineers and architects to develop plans for the homes and the Common House. Each speculative structure is modern in appearance with a clear intent toward “green” building. The homes have solar panels and the plan is to be low impact and sustainable. According to the Common Ground Ecovillage website, more detailed architectural and engineering plans are the next steps with a hope of breaking ground in the very near future.
Once built, the community will offer a unique plan for land and home “ownership.” All Common Ground Ecovillage land, including land in the residential village, will be held in common ownership. The cooperative is still working out the precise legal mechanism for accomplishing this goal. The end result will likely resemble something a traditional Community Land Trust model. According to the group’s website, “The legal structure for our homes is planned to follow the limited-equity housing cooperative model where the dwelling units are owned by the cooperative and leased to those who reside in them.”
It’s an uncommon plan and one that may not be for everyone. But the lure of a residential community that is self-sustaining, with acres of exploration, could become stronger as a reaction to the current COVID-19 pandemic. The sense of belonging to a community could be a welcome alternative to the recent solitude of sheltering in place.
A statement from Tara O’Neil, a member of the Ecovillage cooperative, offers support to this possibility.
“Even while stuck at home during a pandemic, it is nourishing to feel like I’m a part of something larger — something that has the potential to be a healing, life-affirming force, both for the people involved and the land we’re caring for,” she said.
Even though the start of construction at the site has still yet to be set, there is no shortage of work being done by the cooperative members.
“We have what we call the farm, which is a vegetable farm of about an acre,” said Berley. “It’s is an active garden where Margret Mueller and Jeffry Goodrum, who are farmers and members of the Common Ground EcoVillage, have been our guides to getting this chunk of land under cultivation. To do that we have invested in some larger equipment, like a tractor, and a shed has been built to cover farming equipment. We have a plan for a pole barn to cover a much larger space for more equipment in the future.
“Margret and Jeffry are teaching people to do everything that needs to be done to create and maintain a large garden, or farm. That’s going on now. We call it the Community Farming Initiative. It’s a collective project that will continue once the village is built. It’s a core part of the eco village plan,” she said.
Jeffry Goodrum also developed the irrigation system — which is powered by a mobile solar panel — for the garden. Anthony Weston, who is Planning, Design and Development Circle Operational Leader for Common Ground Ecovillage, designed and, with the community, built the pump house. It is a “slip straw” building made with local straw and clay dug from the land. The foundation of the structure was made using recycled sidewalk pieces.
A small “Cobb” building, which resembles a southwestern-style adobe, is nearby. It also was made with clay from the property.
Berley said workshops on building structures using materials from the land could also be a part of the cooperative’s offerings.
“This has taken a while to come to the point we’re at now,” Berley said of Common Ground Ecovillage. “It had been thought about and people had many meetings to make it what it is, which is a community in the making, but an actual community now. Lots of things are happening together, and new members are still welcome, as we don’t have the residences built and nobody is yet living on the property.”