Many ecovillages overstep regulations with the hope of not being caught out. However, when ecovillages obtain official permission for ecological innovations, similar projects in their areas will benefit, for they create precedents in their countries for other ecovillages to apply to local authorities for permission.
Diana Leafe Christian visited three ecovillage projects in North America in which ecovillage founders worked closely with local authorities in the site-planning process and requests for zoning variances in order to create unique new zoning regulations that encourage and support more ecologically sustainable local development.
Sometimes ecovillagers in Canada and the US must first get local county or city zoning regulations, health department regulations, and/or building codes changed in order to exist legally. This includes getting permission to build smaller-than-normal dwellings and multi-family residences; to cluster dwellings closer together than normally allowed; to have more people per hectare living onsite than would normally be allowed (called “population density”); to allow educational centers and other cottage industries and small-scale businesses onsite; to construct dwellings with strawbale, cob, or other natural-building techniques not yet allowed by national building codes; and to use roofwater catchment, constructed wetlands, composting toilets, and use ‘greywater’ recycling methods.
However, if no permission for these innovations is secured first, the ecovillage may exist “under the table,” hoping they will not be caught by local authorities for ecologically sustainable activities which – while normal enough to most of us – are nevertheless illegal in some areas in North America.
In 2011, the founders of Dandelion Village, a rural-feeling but still “urban” ecovillage project in the city limits of Bloomington, Indiana in the USA, applied to their local Planning Department for a higher population density than the current regulations allowed, as well as for clustered housing, shared housing, and permission to raise chickens and goats. After much discussion, the Bloomington authorities required the community to incorporate water-retention structures on their site with the help of a watershed engineer, and then approved almost all of the group’s request — which set a precedent for their city, state, and the whole USA.
In 2002, this also happened at O.U.R. Ecovillage in a rural part of the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island, British Colombia, Canada. (O.U.R. stands for “One United Resource.”). O.U.R. Ecovillage founders requested permission to site a school, organic farm, residential center of natural-built homes, Bed & Breakfast, campground, dorm, food service business, and organic food business on their property. But they were told it wasn’t legal. So they asked 13 different local regulatory authorities to help them develop a new zoning category that would accommodate these land uses.
For two and a half years, the officials and community members studied topics ranging from sustainable forestry to wetlands conservation, natural building innovations, and ways to stimulate the local economy. Together they developed a new zoning category, “Rural Residential Comprehensive Development Zoning,” which was passed in 2005.
This not only set a precedent in Canada, but the local officials appeared on national television shows promoting their innovative new zoning category. O.U.R. Ecovillage members have since served as consultants to over 30 other similar projects in Canada with similar regulatory challenges.
O.UR. Ecovillage subsequently requested, and got permission, from local building code regulators to build with cob, strawbale, and other innovative building methods.
In 2004, Yarrow Ecovillage in the Fraser Valley, northeast of Vancouver, British Columbia, applied for permission to include homes, cottage industries, a learning center, and an organic farm on their site. They also sought permission for greater density than the regulations allowed.
Yarrow’s founders organized a series of informational meetings with city officials — asking for advice and suggestions — and with local residents, in order to answer questions and seek future neighbors’ input. They then proposed a new “Ecovillage” zoning category for the city, that official’s approved unanimously.
The first stage, approved in 2004, allowed a commercial/ residential section on a small portion of their property for retail businesses and residences. The second stage, approved in 2006, designated an “Ecovillage Zone,” which increased the density of this portion of their land from five to forty potential residences, which allowed the founders to get bank loans.
The new Ecovillage Zoning category also set a precedent and was widely reported in zoning and planning circles across Canada. Yarrow Ecovillage used this new permission to seek and get bank loans to build duplex housing (sometimes using stack-wood construction – a combination of logs and cement to create thick walls with high insulation and thermal mass), and to build their new community building, using the cohousing model of housing development.
This kind of advocacy has also happened in Europe: to change local — or national — laws and regulations regarding building codes. Sieben Linden in Germany, for example, engaged in years of demonstrating, advocating and teaching strawbale construction. As a result, the German legislature changed regulations to allow strawbale buildings without going through the lengthy and expensive process of first seeking planning permission.
One ecovillage in the US, EcoVillage at Ithaca in New York state, used the cohousing model — with bank loans and mortgages, architects, and building contractors — to seek and get permission from zoning and building departments for higher population densities and duplex houses and community buildings for each of its three cohousing neighborhoods, FROG, SONG, and TREE. Its third cohousing neighborhood, TREE, uses German ‘passivhaus’ construction — with full local permission.
However, two other ecovillage projects in the US, Dancing Rabbit in rural northeastern Missouri, and Earthaven in the mountains of western North Carolina, bypassed the whole regulation process by buying their land in rural, low-population areas that had little to no zoning regulations in the first place, and where they could get local permission to use innovative building styles.
Members of both Dancing Rabbit and Earthaven design and build their own smaller-than-normal cabins and huts themselves and use natural building techniques. Both ecovillages use roofwater catchment, constructed wetlands, greywater recycling, and composting toilets. And, unlike most other ecovillages in North America, both are completely off the grid, using solar, micro-hydro, and wind power to generate their electricity.
Diana Leafe Christian is author of Creating a Life Together (also published in French, Spanish, Italian, and Russian), and Finding Community, and publisher of Ecovillages http://EcovillageNews.org. She speaks at conferences and leads workshops internationally on the tools and processes that help new and forming communities succeed, on Sociocracy, and on creating connection and harmony in groups.
Diana lives at Earthaven Ecovillage in the U.S.
Portions of this article first appeared in the latest edition of the Eurotopia communities directory, published in German and in English at Sieben Linden Ecovillage in Germany.