The pros and cons of cluster housing

by Betty Oppenheimer, Sequim Gazette


Development isn't all about shopping centers.

Out on the prairie, development is happening five acres at a time, as new residents buy their private chunk of farmland and build one home on it. Like little boxes separated by vacant, unproductive land, this kind of development eats into the vast expanses of open fields that comprise Sequim's unique landscape.

There is another way, say Clallam County Commissioner Steve Tharinger, county planning director Andy Meyer, architect Mary Ellen Winborn and activist Dave Leroux.

Cluster housing has worked in other parts of the country, and it's been written into county code since the mid-1990s. What's missing here are developers willing to make the up-front investment to create cluster housing developments and prove to the local population that living on a working farm is preferable to plowing one under to pour a new home's foundation.

"There is definitely a risk factor for the property owner or developer," said Leroux. "This is a new-product type in a market without a track record in this area. But it has very real benefits for the community in terms of land use and the environment."

In 1996, when the county's agricultural advisory committee was meeting to consider ways to retain the valley's rural character, they suggested the cluster concept. Although most of Sequim's farmland has an overlay zoning of 2.5 and 5-acre lots on which one home may be built, the ordinance allows for parcels of 20 acres or more to be developed in a manner that preserves a larger open space.

Instead of building one house on each 5-acre lot, the total acreage is split so that a cluster of homes is built on one-third of the property, while the remaining two-thirds remains open space or farmland, with one home on it for the farmer or caretaker. On the one-third which can be developed, the ordinance allows for a "bonus" of 30-percent more homes to be built. The resulting housing is denser than it would have been, but all of the owners have access to the open space, and all agree to adhere to land covenants that keep the new neighborhood consistent in design and intent.

Planning director Meyer said that cluster housing "helps retain rural character and reduce the impact of development, without killing the goose that laid the golden egg" - that is, the pastoral landscape that makes Clallam County such a desirable place to live. "The problem," Meyer said, "is that we haven't yet seen a local example of cluster housing, so no one realizes that it is a sustainable solution, allowing both development and agricultural retention."

Like living on a golf course of a lake, the cluster housing idea would allow people - young families, retired seniors, working peope - to live "on a farm."

"SunLand and Sherwood Village are similar, but they are more suburban. What we're talking about is very rural in character," said Leroux, who has talked to many farmers and landowners and worked with architect Winborn on several parcels to make drawings available for them to get an idea of what is allowable under county code, if they are willing to invest the money to develop it.

Most farmers do not have the capital to build this kind of development, so they choose to sell off 5-acre lots instead.

It does take a large invetment to create this kind of development. When landowners can easily sell 5-acre parcels for ready cash, with no requirement to install utilities or other infrastructure before the sale, what is the incentive to create cluster housing?

The incentive, said Leroux, has to be a concern about the future of the landscape coupled with a belief that this kind of neighborhood is desirable. He'd love to live on a farm, and he doesn't think he's alone in that desire. And financially, Leroux is convinced after reading about similar clusters throughout the country, that although it is a more complex and costly process, cluster housing does ultimately get the landowner's equity back.

"It requires money and vision," added Leroux.

Winborn works with clients daily who want their dream home on a 5-acre lot, not realizing the amount of maintenance required to keep five acres lookind good, or the farmland that migh have been saved had they and their neighbors required less land per home.

"I just know that if people could see this kind of neighborhood, they'd realize how much sense it makes," in terms of consistency of design and neighborhood feel, she said, something that is lacking in a patchwork of 5-acre parcels.

"People have a false sense of security on their 5-acre parcels, and they're surprised if their neighbor starts, for example, to ride around the perimeter of his property on a dirt bike. There are no restrictions on what they can do, and we have no capacity to control other people's choices. Planned cluster developments have covenants that guarantee a certain type of neighborhood, with surrounding open space," said Meyer of the county's abilities, adding "The county has to do a better job of assuring peopel that the process doesn't have to be a 'permitting nightmare.' We want to work with anyone interested in doing cluster housing."

Leroux calls this kind of development "guilt free," because you can sell off 30 percent of your farm, retain 70 percent of the land for farming and to benefit the rural landscape, and "if you do it right, you can command a better price for it."

"People use rar-view mirrors to look at what used to work, instead of looking forward. I think that 50 to 100 years in the future, people will look at what used to be Sequim's farmland, divided into two-and-a-half and 5-acre chunks, and ask how we could have been so stupid? How could we allow this resource to be chopped up into useless pieces that aren't productive or well-maintained?" asked Leroux.

See letter to the editor from Robert McGonigel regarding this column.





In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref.]

Back to Current Edition Citizen Review Archive LINKS Search This Site