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Community Service creating prototype housing concept

Community Service, Inc., has produced a proposal for a prototype housing development that, its creators say, promotes energy-efficient building techniques, a sense of community, economic sustainability and local food production.

The model, called Agraria, would feature small, highly energy-efficient houses clustered together to preserve green space, which can then be used for gardens, orchards, open space and recreation areas.

The Agraria concept, said Pat Murphy, the executive director of Community Service, is driven by the organization’s new focus, peak oil, which is the time when global oil production reaches its maximum and begins to decline, and “by the need to reduce material consumption.”

Community Service’s conference last fall drew 210 people to Yellow Springs to discuss the peak oil issue, while 400 attended the conference’s keynote address.

Murphy and others at Community Service believe that an energy crisis will lead to a resurgence in small-town life. With declining oil production, people will be forced to “rebuild the agriculture tradition,” Murphy said, grow their own food, drive less or travel in more fuel-efficient vehicles, work where they live and build houses that are extremely energy efficient.

“Agraria will be a practical model for this small town renewal, including the revitalization of the many skills and traditions lost in the rush for industrial urbanization,” says a draft document called “Agraria: a proposal for a post peak oil community development in Yellow Springs, Ohio,” prepared by Community Solution, a new program by Community Service.

The document is available at www.communitysolution.org.

“There’s a problem coming,” Murphy said, referring to peak oil, and Community Service is creating an “enormous potential solution for the village, the country and the world.”

Creating a ‘model community’

Community Service believes that Yellow Springs can be a model for the Agraria concept. This type of development “will attract people to Yellow Springs who will work in Yellow Springs,” thus increasing the population and contributing to the local economy, said Megan Quinn, the outreach director for Community Service and the manager of the Agraria project.

Agraria would support the economy through food production as well as by providing space for people living in the developments to work in offices and workshops, she said.

The Agraria project is based on a build-it-and-they-will-come philosophy. Building small, low-energy houses that are clustered together should keep prices down, which could help young families afford to purchase housing in Yellow Springs, Murphy said. Murphy and Quinn also indicated that Community Service expects to attract new people to Agraria who are interested in the peak oil issue.

“We’re not designing this because we see a market in Yellow Springs,” Murphy said. Community Service is “setting up a model community that we think will attract people who come to our conferences.”

Nevertheless, Quinn said that Agraria could help realize many goals that have been identified by Yellow Springers, including increasing the population, expanding businesses, and maintaining and enhancing green space.

Houses in an Agraria development would be concentrated or clustered, to include three homes on one-quarter of an acre, or 10 to 20 dwellings per acre, the draft “Agraria” document states. Clustering the homes would also leave more space for farming.

Agraria houses would be small, around 1,000 square feet, and built with “much higher insulation requirements,” the document states. These standards — along with other energy-saving techniques such as solar panels and highly efficient appliances and the use of root cellars — would reduce an Agrarian home’s energy use to a quarter of what is used by the typical new home built in the U.S. in 2004, according to the Community Solution document.

Another energy-saving approach would be achieved through reducing reliance on automobiles. Agraria residents would be encouraged to drive cars that average 50 miles per gallon or more, and an Agraria community may provide vehicles as part of a car-sharing program. An Agraria development would relegate parking on the neighborhood’s periphery, not in front on each house. In addition, unpaved paths would replace roads.

Agraria would also feature community buildings, such as gardens, laundry facilities, guest rooms, canning and food preparation areas, dining areas, office and work spaces, buildings for tools and equipment, and facilities for teaching and lecturing. A development would also offer recreation areas.

“Agraria is a neighborhood-community rather than simply a housing development,” the Community Solution proposal states.

However, the Community Service project does not intend to create intentional communities, such as the Vale, but neighborhoods that fit in Yellow Springs, Quinn said. “Residents will be fully integrated with the town and we hope the town with the neighborhood,” she said.

Community Service’s next steps

Community Service began working on the Agraria project last summer, when the organization considered purchasing a 22-acre parcel of land called Birch III from Antioch, Murphy said. However, Birch III, which is located within the village limits on the south end of town, is now selling for a price that makes it prohibitive for Community Service to buy, Murphy said.

Over the next two to three months, Community Service will further develop its plans for Agraria, Murphy said, including developing a budget for Agraria and possible finance mechanisms. He has no estimates on what it would cost to build a house in Agraria. He is also researching possible builders for a project.

In addition, Community Service could start looking at land to purchase in three months, he said. “If eight acres or 20 acres became available at the right price we could do that,” Murphy said.

Community Service will likely purchase land and design the project and hand the responsibility of building Agraria over to a builder, Murphy said.

Zoning ‘makes this possible’

The timing of Community Service’s Agraria project could not be better. Not only is Yellow Springs in the midst of a debate over residential and business growth, but Village Council is poised to put on the books a new zoning district that Murphy described as perfect for Agraria.

Murphy said that typical municipal zoning restrictions generally would stand in the way of the Agraria model, but, he said, a proposal to revise the Village’s Planned Unit Development zoning district “makes this possible.”

The PUD standards would allow for a combination of residential and business uses to be built on the same property. The proposed regulations also allow the Village to negotiate zoning standards, providing flexibility for creatively designing a development. Village administrators and public officials have cited clustered housing as a prime example of the type of development suitable for the proposed PUD districts.

The PUD proposal also requires developers to set aside a certain percentage of land for green space, though, Murphy said, Agraria would go beyond those standards, setting aside 75 percent of a development for open space.

When he read a draft of the PUD proposal, Murphy said, he thought “this is a tremendous opportunity.” The new district “is meant to allow you to live, work and grow your food in your neighborhood,” he said.

Editorial Notes: Community Service's proposal ("Agraria: A low-energy use, small, sustainable community") is available on their site at www.communitysolution.org/agraria.html -BA

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