Forgive me if I do not greet with open arms the Green Haven Cohousing project’s attempt to change zoning regulations for the Town of Bethany. The project proposal is, in fact, little more than a Trojan Horse that would, if approved, destroy what remains of Bethany’s rural character. It would do so in the name of peace, love, granola and good feeling for all.
Green Haven is a politically correct group who claims virtuous intent. Its web page announces the following purpose: "In our cohousing community members work together to create a socially rich community that is safe, sustainable, diverse, egalitarian, supportive, attractive and affordable.
"Members collaborate to plan and develop their own neighborhood. Homes are owned privately but are deliberately clustered to provide a village-like common space that is protected from vehicle traffic. There is also a common house, which typically includes dining, recreation and childcare facilities and other amenities. In our community there is no effort to establish a religious or philosophical creed; what we share is a desire to live more economically, sustainably, and cooperatively."
It’s unctuous good will like this that makes Vermont look more appealing every day.
Green Haven’s brave new world is targeted for land currently designated by court order for low-income housing, and located at the corner of Amity Road and Meyers Road. It is part of the Elsie Halter farm, land which was the subject of litigation nearly a decade ago when developers persuaded a Superior Court judge to overrule the town’s zoning commission, and to permit low income housing to be built on the property in conformance with the state’s affordable housing act.
Rather than target its efforts at the Halter farm land, however, Green Haven wants to change zoning regulations affecting the entire town. In a series of meetings with zoning officials and town planner Hiram Peck, Green Haven’s lawyer has proposed a bold new zoning regulation that would create Open Space Housing Districts. Parcels of 20-acres or more would be eligible to become such a district, and to build high-density housing. There could be Green Havens scattered throughout the town.
Green Haven is nothing if not determined to change Bethany. At a recent town meeting, supporters of the project first waved the flag of fear about low-income housing. "If not us, then you will be forced to build higher density housing on the Halter farm property," they say. That is a red herring: There is no competing development plan for the Halter property. Green Haven simply appeals to the fear of something worse than what it offers, hoping we’ll forget that there is nothing proposed for the now vacant farmland. Why must we sign a suicide pact with suburbanization?
More frightening is Green Haven’s over-reaching. It claims to have set its sights on the Halter farm land. Then why propose a zone change regulation that would open the entire town, some 45 parcels each of 20 acres or more, amounting to approximately 2,000 acres, to what amounts to condominium development? Forgive me if I prefer not to join a community of geriatric do-gooders dancing around a Maypole. I came to Bethany because it was one of the few places in South Central Connecticut that retains its rural character. It is a place, frankly, where I can be left alone.
Why a zone change aimed at every corner of the town when its proclaimed target could perhaps more easily be hit with a property-specific variance from existing regulations? There is only one honest answer: Demographics are destiny, and some Bethany residents are determined to sell their land to the highest bidder. High-density cluster housing pays a good return if you’re determined to sell the land you inherited.
I was both amused and disturbed at the recent town meeting about the new regulations when zoning board member Patricia Winer stood to ask whether the proposed new housing districts would permit horse lovers to congregate together to create an equestrian community. Does she really believe that this will meet state-mandated requirements for low-income housing? The question was ludicrous, appealing, as it did, to a vision of Bethany the housing districts would destroy: it reeked of bad faith. I am not sure which version of Green Kool Aid Ms. Winer was drinking.
Green Haven looks like another utopian dream. Like-minded, well-meaning people can live together, grow organic vegetables, watch the Sun set, sing Kumbaya at day's end -- welcome to Bethany's geriatric version of Woodstock. But how well will these clustered communities survive once the enthusiasm passes? Some of he bitterest litigation I've ever seen arises from neighbors sharing something as simple as a driveway. Green Haven is a litigator's dream come true.
Perhaps town residents are resigned to permitting Bethany to go the way of its neighbors. We can become another Hamden, or Naugatuck, with tiny housing lots crammed one against the other, or condominiums dotting the landscape. We can be much better neighbors wed by our affection for common parks and common space. It’s not what I came to Bethany a decade ago to enjoy; if I wanted to live in Hamden, I would have bought a home there, not in Bethany. It’s not what hundreds of town residents who turned up at a recent town meeting support either.
There are no cohousing projects in Connecticut. Green Haven wants to experiment here, in our town. And it is not content to experiment on one isolated property. Open up the entire town to development. Pave paradise. Put up a parking lot. We’ll only know what we’ve lost when it’s gone.
I for one don’t intend to let that happen without all the fight I can muster.