Seeds of Change

Hope this place is a success and that this model catches on!

Reprinted from Vermont Life Magazine

Seeds of Change

For more than half a century,
America has sold its farmland into sprawl

A new Vermont village asks, “Can farms, not golf courses, form the heart of a suburb?”

By Melissa Pasanen

Vermont Life Summer 2010

During a late summer meeting in the South Village sales office, developer David Scheuer, president of The Retrovest Companies, excused himself to answer his cell phone. “OK, but I hope we don’t inflame any homeowners,” he concluded, before explaining that the caller was one of the South Village farmers updating him on plans to spread liquid manure over fields that are easily seen and smelled from the handful of homes in the new South Burlington neighborhood. This issue is not unfamiliar in Vermont where, Scheuer observes, there is an unfortunate dialogue about homes versus farms. What is different in this case is that the farm and 334 homes are being developed at the same time, intertwined physically and philosophically. The phone call highlights a point Scheuer takes pains to make, usually without manure: South Village is not your typical suburban development.

It’s been more than a decade since Scheuer, a Burlington-based developer with a reputation for urban redevelopment and walkable neighborhoods, took another call, this time from Will Raap, a nonprofit pioneer of local food, farming and environmental initiatives, and founder of Gardener’s Supply and Burlington’s Intervale Center. Over the years, Raap has watched Chittenden County’s landscape change dramatically, and he knew that the 224-acre former dairy farm less than five miles from downtown Burlington was a prime development candidate. “Land like this is so valuable, you can’t preserve it,” he explains. Raap also knew the farm’s owners and decided to try to match-make a partnership that would reclaim a piece of the city’s agricultural heritage, generate opportunity for young farmers and build a different kind of suburban community. “The ecological footprint of suburban development is as bad as it gets,” Raap says bluntly. “David was someone who might have a different idea than McMansions.”

Scheuer started Retrovest in 1978 and was an early proponent of New Urbanism, a design movement that arose in the late ’80s to counter suburban sprawl. “After World War II, we designed America for cars, not people,” Scheuer explains. “We’re a lot more conscious of both personal and environmental health now.” Iconic New Urbanist communities like Seaside, Florida feature a variety of smaller, clustered homes around a green or neighborhood center with schools and stores within walking distance. They prioritize public over private space, pedestrians over cars and diversity over homogeneity. Although it would not be purely New Urbanist, Scheuer and Raap agreed that the South Burlington site had potential as a new model for Vermont suburbia where front porches trump pesticide-perfect front lawns and a community of neighbors can walk to pick up organic fruits and vegetables grown within view of their homes. “We’re not trying to create a Shangri-La,” says Scheuer. “We’re trying to show that with good physical planning, the housing can be value-added to the agriculture; the housing can be the driver.”

To develop a master plan, Scheuer enlisted Jim Constantine of Looney Ricks Kiss, a national leader in traditional neighborhood planning and architecture. “We set out to create a new Vermont village, to draw on the quintessential form of community-making and update it with open space preserved in a meaningful way,” says Constantine. The team of planning and environmental experts proposed a mix of clustered housing that leaves 70 percent of the acreage undeveloped for a village green, trails, protected wetlands and wildlife areas, a skating pond, dog park, city soccer field and 15-acre organic farm with orchards. A detailed Community Land Management Plan is backed up by the nonprofit South Village Stewardship Fund, which receives one-half of 1 percent of each home sale to support agriculture, restoration and conservation projects. Buildings will all be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified, from $260,000 condominiums to $700,000 single-family homes. To encourage diversity, 10 percent will be priced affordably (a city incentive that earned the project a 66-home bonus) and another 10 percent voluntarily priced below market value as workforce housing.

Juli Beth Hinds, then South Burlington’s director of planning and zoning, worked closely with Retrovest through the planning and approval process during which, she says, South Village faced mostly challenges common to other large projects. Along with public resources like the soccer field and trails, she praises the restoration plans and the value of bringing food production into a neighborhood’s heart, a timely concept that has already earned South Village New York Times coverage alongside established farm-centered communities like Prairie Crossing near Chicago and Atlanta’s Serenbe. “The more we can include agriculture into our communities,” Hinds says, “the healthier they will be in the long-term.”

Last summer, in the new garage of one of the townhome models, piles of giant scallions, yellow and green squash, sweet red peppers and fuchsia eggplants waited for the farm’s community-supported-agriculture members to pick up their weekly shares. Out in the fields, cherry tomato plants bowed with fruit, bouquets of silvery green leaves cradled broccoli blooms and farmer Bobby Young pulled beets with the help of a high school intern. Young is one of a pair of 20-something farmers working with David Miskell, a seasoned local farmer. This year, the farm has expanded to six acres and will double its membership to 60. “This is a model where you grow both farms and farmers,” Miskell says with satisfaction. The farmers have also reached into the community to involve area students in planting and partnered with a local nonprofit that will farm a half-acre with the help of students who will then eat the harvest in their cafeterias.

The farm may be booming but, unfortunately, the recent housing market has been a bust. As of this spring, only 11 of the first year’s planned 25 to 40 homes had been built and South Village had taken refundable deposits on just half of its first block of 12 condos. Scheuer and Constantine have faith that they have built the right neighborhood and that the housing market will soon perk up. “Across the nation we’re seeing a cultural shift to smaller, more efficient, reduced-energy-cost homes and to a more compact environmental footprint of living,” says Constantine. “People want places like South Village.”

That’s exactly what you’ll hear from the first few homeowners like Gus Burti, 71, and his wife, Maggi, who raised their family in Burlington before retiring to a North Carolina golf course home. When they moved back two years ago to be closer to their grandchildren, they picked South Village over a golf course development because of the organic farm, energy-efficient house design and sense of community.

Similar reasons drew Sarah Corry, 29, a nonprofit fundraiser, and her husband, Ryan, a hospital audiologist, to South Village — from “the best carrots I ever had” to “nature out our back door,” says Sarah. “Everybody’s concerned with reducing their carbon footprint,” she sums up. “This neighborhood just fit our lifestyle.”

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4 thoughts on “Seeds of Change

  1. Agriculture is actually well-suited to true new urbanism. A traditional town form in the U.S. and in fact in many parts of the world was a clustering together of housing, with agriculture on the outskirts. While family farms with large acreages are in big trouble, this shared-work and shared-produce type of agriculture makes sense for those that can afford to be green to this extent. Replication of this model would indeed be a plus for reducing the suburban sprawl that has led to so many social, environmental, and energy use ills.

    • Thanks for your comment Nancy. And you are very right that it’s a return to more traditional ways of creating community, which is a great part of the appeal. I think we lost a lot, culturally, when we abandoned the village model and I’m glad to see it coming back.

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