RE: Cost up to zoning board approval
From: John Major (
Date: Mon, 23 Sep 1996 17:16:29 -0500
Heather -

As usual, you got excellent and thorough advice from Rob Sandelin, but I
thought I could add something, and in addition speak about the
experience of having a member own the land. 

On the zoning process, Rob is right on about getting to know the city
staff. We have been working with them for almost two years, talking it
up, exploring ideas and so forth - we even invited a planner to our site
programming workshop with the CoHousing Company. In fact, a city
planner heard about our project and said "this is for me!" and joined us -
she's been a great "mole". We are real happy with this approach, and 
just got unanimous approval from the zoning commissioners (next, the
city - urk... - council). 

On the downside, I'd better point out that we got poor quality information
from the staff early on - they said that we *wouldn't* have to rezone for
higher density to attach the buildings, but it turned out that we did, a
demoralizing turn of events. It also made quite a stink with the neighbors,
who feared, reasonably, that we were big bad developers who were
going to build apartment buildings and rent to "riff raff". Our kicker has
always been that we were building at a lower density than what the
*current* zoning allowed, much less what the new category would
permit. So use that argument if you can. At any rate, work hard with the
city staff, trust them, but tether your camel!

Another thing for your strategy - in New England in particular there are
some enlightened city planners who are interested in "cluster zoning" as
a solution to the building out of rural areas. Many outlying suburbs of
Boston, fearing high-density "city" living, zoned residential lots at > 1
acre, forcing big ugly developments of huge houses scattered evenly
around, destroying the landscape that everyone moved there to cherish.
"Cluster zoning" allows higher density development that maintains the
rural nature - essentially, a small-town America layout that is ideal for
CoHousing. There was even an article about Cluster zoning in the New
Yorker a few years back! Look it up, and I bet you'll find some allies.

Finally, about the owner/member - Wasatch CoHousing was founded by
someone with a plot that he wanted to do CoHo on. He *very* wisely
made us look around for other land (the site is not in a "tony"
neighborhood, and everyone had their "ideal" site in mind) before he
even told us what he wanted for it. So by the time he named his
(ridiculously low) price, we had a sober idea of how hard it was to find
a spot, and appreciated the site for all its evident qualities, not just for the
fact that it was at hand. It sounds like your group has already had its
conciousness raised on that point    ;-)

It was a tricky business figuring out how and how much to pay our
owner - he was essentially offering us a grant, and we weren't sure
whether that would be a healthy thing - but that was an excellent
opportunity for us to build community, and the land situation has been
pretty gracious all along the way. I'd say you have a great opportunity,
but view it as a chance to learn all about everyone's hangups (including
the owner's!), and be prepared to let money matters all hang out.

By the way, you will need to buy the land outright before you start
building, to give the bank "First position" on it, and protect your
owner/member, so be prepared to finance the purchase early on. Our
owner/member has given us all the rope we need    ;-)   but we are
going to have to come up with the $$ shortly. We put a clause in our land
purchase agreement that if we didn't get zoning, our owner/member
would give us our downpayment back, and he'd get the land back - he
could sell it at an easy profit, in any case, and you may be in a similar
position being close to Albany.

Good luck!

John Major
Wasatch CoHousing
jmajor [at]

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