EcoVillage Low Impact Sustainable Development Agency


Below are articles written about successful EcoVillage Development efforts that are happening globally...


How Yarrow Ecovillage Got "Ecovillage Zoning"

By Michael Hale
Original Article from Ecovillage News 
 Author Michael Hale in the 25-acre field
where Yarrow Ecovillagers are practicing
sustainable farming.
Their dairy barn and silo in background.

“What makes you different from any other developer?”

The speaker, a middle-aged man with longish hair, was clearly on the offensive. It was October, 2002, and this was the first of our public meetings in the small, conservative farming community of Yarrow in southwestern British Columbia. We’d purchased a 25-acre former dairy farm right in the middle of town; whatever we did on the property would clearly affect Yarrow residents. We hadn’t prepared for this question, though, believing a more likely query would be something like, “Are you a cult?”

We had set so much stock in an open consultation process with the townspeople. Was it all going to go sideways? As I began to stammer out a reply, the man suddenly asked another question:
“How are you going to handle wastewater treatment? Our houses are on septic systems. There won’t be enough capacity to handle a whole bunch of new housing.”
This was a question we were prepared for. In fact, it was a nice segue to our slide show on wastewater treatment using solar aquatics.
As one of our members, Kim, flashed the first slide up on the wall, I could see that our antagonist was interested.
“What’s that in the corner of the picture?” he asked.
“A digester,” Kim replied.
“And those tanks?”
Kim explained the photos of a Solar Aquatics greenhouse (a.k.a. a “living machine”)—a system using solar energy and aquatic plants and other organisms to convert graywater and even blackwater into potable water.

We all breathed more easily. The public consultation phase of our co-design process was on its way.
Yarrow Ecovillagers on day of spring work party.
Our group had formed in 1999 to consider purchasing a property located in the interior of BC. That purchase didn’t happen but some members of the group continued to meet to pursue the idea of creating an ecovillage in the Fraser Valley. After we purchased the dairy farm property our group grew quickly from its original six members, and within four months we had a dozen folks committed. We recognized that the traditional rural village has largely been eclipsed in North America by the march to urbanization. We knew that living in an ecovillage offered an alternative—attempting to recapture what is special about the village way of life. But a village is not just buildings; rather, it’s an intricate fabric of relationships among ecovillage members and between ecovillagers and their neighbors.
So, first we worked hard at establishing a common set of values among ourselves. Following a workshop and extensive group discussions, we developed the vision and principles on which our community would be based.
We formed a legal cooperative, which seemed to be the way of organizing ourselves that best fit our values.
We began our permaculture-influenced design process. That meant living with the land. Permaculture looks at agriculture and human culture from the standpoint of nature. That wasn’t easy for many of us, as we’d been socialized to consider ourselves dominant over nature.

Seven of our members started farming that first year. We eagerly plowed two acres and planted organic crops. The land was good to us. It had been fallow for 20 years and was fertile. Our crops flourished—but so did the pests. And we soon found that, although our produce was eagerly bought at farmers’ markets, we weren’t going to make much money selling it. We thus began to discover the realities of modern agricultural economics.

Supporting wild nature, increasing biodiversity, and creating a balanced ecosystem became our strategies to control pests, rather than using pesticides. And since farmers on our land in the past had farmed right up to the banks of the little creek running across our property, we decided to try to turn that part of our land back to the way it would have functioned 100 years ago: we re-created a riparian buffer zone along the creek.
Unlike most developers, we had begun a quest to become more ecologically sustainable. We adopted strategies of minimizing ecological impacts and conserving resources. This hasn’t been easy. We humans tend to be good at rationalizing our disregard for nature. Our group looked for scientifically based measures of sustainability. Life-cycle analysis, ecological footprint analysis, and The Natural Step framework all proved useful. The Natural Step framework, for example, suggests four criteria for sustainability:
  • Reduce dependence upon substances extracted from the Earth’s crust (fossil fuels, minerals).
  • Reduce dependence upon synthetic chemicals.
  • Reduce encroachment upon nature.
  • Meet human needs fairly and efficiently.
Such simple principles were helpful to refocus our thinking. As we began to build on the land, we used life-cycle analysis to help us determine the construction materials to use. This allowed us to look at the energy inputs for a particular material in all facets of its use, reuse, recycling, and disposal. It was a way to ensure that we looked at not only economic factors in land development, but at social and ecological ones as well (the “triple bottom line”). As we got into this, we realized that to become, as Robert Gilman’s ecovillage definition states, “harmlessly integrated into the natural world,” we were committing ourselves to a lifelong process of learning and development.

We knew we were very much a part of the wider society, and thus needed to get the local community’s input in our ecovillage design—although we had trepidation about this, too. (“If we ask them what they want, we might not like what we hear!” was a nagging concern for many of us.) Also, any development on the property would be strongly influenced by external forces such as the local real estate market and city ordinances.
Community members at a natural building workshop.

So we came up with a fairly novel approach, which we bravely called “co-design.” It would consist of three steps, and we intended to repeat the steps as many times as needed. The first was for ecovillage members to brainstorm about what we wanted to do on the land. The second was to run these ideas by Chilliwack city officials (Yarrow is a part of Chilliwack) for their advice and changes. The third step was to hold public meetings with Yarrow residents in order to answer questions and get their input, critiques, and suggestions.

We already had a common vision and strategies. Would City Hall like our ideas? Would the townspeople buy in? We advertised “organic, local, or fairly traded refreshments” to people who dropped by to hear about our plan. And they came in good number: over 60 people attended the second public meeting.

In this meeting we asked the town residents, “What are Yarrow’s assets?” “What are its needs?” We got a lively response.

“We need a bakery,” said one man.
“A grocery store,” said a woman.
“A village square!” said another.
Most of these were similar to ideas we’d thought of ourselves. We relaxed. The public-input process was working.

While City Hall didn’t know what to make of us at first, by our third meeting they were engaged. They knew we’d need a special type of zoning, as none of the existing zoning categories seemed to work. We didn’t fit into the “Rural Residential” category, since we were planning cottage industries, businesses, and a learning centre, in addition to the organic farm. Nor did we fit the “Comprehensive” zoning category, as our project was more village-like and rural in character.

While some city planners and Yarrow residents were skeptical at first, there was always a core of support. Some planners were reminded of the planning principles of their university days. And many townspeople resonated with the village idea and the notion of creating a more sustainable form of community.

At the fourth round of consultations, we presented our specific concept plan. We wanted to create a mix of 35-40 individual residences, shared community spaces, cottage industries, and a learning centre. We would cluster the businesses closer to the road (the town’s main street) and locate residences and community spaces close to the 20 acres of agricultural land.
After four rounds of the co-design process, we presented our request for rezoning. The Chilliwack City Council unanimously approved our request!

“I really think it’s an idea whose time has come,” commented Council member Mel Folkman. He said Yarrow Ecovillage would solve some of the difficult problems that continually face suburban developments, including storm water management, and that our project “treated the environment with the utmost respect.”

Our rezoning process occurred in two stages. The first, approved in August 2004, created a commercial/residential zone on a small portion of our property along the main road. This would allow a mix of retail businesses on the ground floor and people living in apartments on the second floor. (Later, several Yarrow members bought and now manage a small deli business on the road adjacent to this part of our property.)

The second stage, approved in July, 2006, was for five acres of the property previously zoned “rural residential” to be rezoned as an “ecovillage zone,” which increased the land’s maximum density from 5 to 40 residences. Chilliwack Mayor Clint Hames called us “the first ecovillage zone in Canada.”
(However, in 2003 O.U.R. Ecovillage in Shawnigan Lake, BC, was granted “sustainability zoning” for their project. —Editor)
The two rezonings created an immediate boon for our project. The density increase alone increased the property value: overnight the land value increased to five times our purchase price. We can use our suddenly more valuable land as collateral for a substantial construction loan from the local credit union, which we’ll use to build our homes. We’ll pay back the construction loan by selling these housing units to our members—a complete win-win.

All because the City of Chilliwack granted us “ecovillage zoning.”

“Rezoning is a gift from the community,” is how Victoria land-use planning lawyer Deborah Curran put it at a workshop on cooperatives we had participated in several months earlier.

Some visionaries may wonder why we got so deeply engaged in the realities of local zoning and finance. Yet ecovillage founders must become so engaged, as land use, engineering standards, and financing methods are tightly regulated and controlled in most western countries. And by actively seeking support from city planners, townspeople, professionals in the community, and the local credit union, we have given our own meaning to the term “land developers.”

Now . . . where is that fellow who asked what made us different from any other developer? I’ve finally got an answer for him.

Michael Hale, a long-time environmental and community activist, worked for the Government of Canada for many years. In 2002, tired of lying down in front of bulldozers, he helped found Yarrow Ecovillage.


Planning and Zoning for Ecovillages--Encouraging News
Communities Magazine, Number 91, Summer 1996
By Rachel Freifelder, Gina Baker, and Steve Lafer 

    Ecovillage founders not only need to convince people of the benefits of community and pedestrian access, but must become versed in planning and zoning issues as well. Land use and building regulations vary widely among regions, states, counties (and countries). In some areas, laws and regulations can be major barriers; in others, enlightened agencies or individuals may open doors for newly forming or retrofitted ecovillage communities. Here is a summary of what we have learned about working with local government agencies. We hope this information helps your project.
(Please note, this is based on our experience and may not be true for all areas of North America. Please check the data with knowledgeable people in your own area.)

    During the second year of dialogue in the Dancing Rabbit community's process of creating an ecologically sound ("radically sustainable") new town, as we researched possible land sites in Oregon, we learned that land use planning and local zoning rules were crucial to the suitability of a given site! In Oregon, cautious land use management attempts to protect rural land from suburban sprawl by setting a minimum parcel size of 40 to 160 acres, with some smaller parcels designated "rural residential." These designations restrict construction to one, or sometimes two, houses per parcel. We crossed Oregon off our list of possible locations, because in many cases this kind of zoning actually perpetuates the very sprawl the regulations were created to prevent.
    More recently we have considered the possibility that local governments that manage land use carefully may actually be the ones most likely to cooperate with a new paradigm for human habitat. So we have begun to focus our research on the following two questions: 1) Where do local regulations or lack of regulations remove barriers to ecovillage development? 2) Where do progressive sentiment and a growing understanding of the needs of the new paradigm actually facilitate ecovillage development?
    We are currently researching northern California, my home territory. It is one of the most tightly regulated regions in the country, but also a region fighting to protect its ecosystems and natural resources.
    As we've learned more about building codes and zoning ordinances we've found that often, the building methods and materials that are the most ecologically sound are prohibited or severely restricted by statute. We have asked about greywater systems, composting toilets, strawbale and rammed earth construction, and general exceptions to the Uniform Building Code, which is used by most building departments (in the United States) as the template for local codes.
    Some local jurisdictions allow these innovations--simply because they allow most everything. Others are aware of these "appropriate" technologies and have begun to write them into their local codes.  

    A Sampling of What We Found
    In many rural counties in the United States, building regulations are lax or nonexistent in unincorporated areas. This is true in Missouri, Vermont, Ohio, and Tennessee, among other states. You can inquire in your county by calling the local planning and building departments. If there are none, you may be home free, statutorily. (Of course this doesn't mean you won't run into any number of social barriers, such as initial resistance from rural neighbors).
    If either planning departments or building departments do exist in an unincorporated county you're checking out, ask their staff for a general idea of what kinds of building restrictions apply to new construction. If the story is short enough to tell you over the phone, you shouldn't have much trouble.
    In our quest for the perfect location, we took a mail survey of existing intentional communities all over the United States, and asked, among other questions, whether they had encountered any zoning laws or building codes that prevented them from building houses or doing anything else they wanted to do.
    Many of the respondents simply said "no," or that they were unaware of any regulations that applied to them. This was true for communities in rural Massachusetts, Maine, and New York. In eastern Washington, buildings require permits and must follow codes, but there are no zoning laws. On the downside, a community in Nevada County, California, said they had been required to remove an unpermitted building, showing that their local building inspector was serious about enforcing the codes. As yet there are no regional generalizations possible from our results. 

    Northern California
    The states of California and Oregon, threatened by rampant development, have regulations of one kind or another covering almost every inch of ground, in the form of "General Plans" for each city and county. General Plans are especially aimed at new development. Founders of any intentional communities that plan to build housing (or anything!), even if clustered, on a meadow or a woodland, are considered "developers."
    The good news is that to many county and city officials in more progressive areas, the concept of sustainable development is not foreign. They want to see more bike and pedestrian paths, clustered and shared housing, edible landscaping, community gardens, natural drainage. Unfortunately, most of these communities have the most stringent regulations on any kind of new construction, and the local citizens may be adamantly opposed to new development, even developments (ecovillages, intentional communities) that are designed by idealists committed to working in the public interest. Also, land may be quite expensive in these very desirable locations. Still, there is an effort on the part of forward-thinking local governments to make it easier for community builders who want to create their own utopias. 

    Local Land Use Planning Tools
    The reason behind local zoning and planning regulations is one of good intentions--to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the local residents. It is, in effect, a police power given to nearly all county, city, and town governments by state legislation. With roots in the early twentieth century, the new discipline of "planning" began as an instrument to protect property values from adjacent potential nuisance uses, such as the rapidly expanding and polluting industries of that era. Unfortunately planning has often become a tool which significantly fragments land uses to protect the public sector's perception of convenience, efficiency, equity, and environmental integrity.
    Most local governments concentrate their efforts in several areas: the General or Comprehensive Plan, zoning, and subdivision ordinances. A General Plan creates an image of what the community will be like in the foreseeable future by designating what land uses, population densities, and public facilities will be permitted or encouraged in each area. The General Plan consists of public policies and measurable goals. Zoning regulations put General Plan land use goals into enforceable regulations. Subdivision ordinances govern how land may be divided in terms of ownership, in order to permit the various land uses. 
    The General Plan and related regulations are areas where many local governments need help, and where ecovillage developers can provide an important public service. The goals and objectives of General Plans often do not address sustainability in an integrated or holistic way. For instance, a goal to achieve more affordable housing many not address the use of local and recycled building materials, renewable energy, job training and other livelihood opportunities, composting, organic gardens, soil regeneration, waste to resource planning, greywater recycling, parking space reductions, car co-ops, public transit proximity, bicycle amenities, and so on.
    There may be no special incentives, such as tax breaks, for integrating these kinds of sustainable criteria into a development project. Sustainable community founders can help local authorities realize that concepts such as an "ecovillage demonstration" or "sustainable neighborhood zone," are well within the scope of their General Plans and zoning regulations.
    Similarly, local government officials may need information or a little guidance in how to revise zoning and subdivision ordinances in order to permit innovative ideas for sustainable communities. 
    Ecovillage developers know that, in the long run, sustainable communities will significantly reduce the burden of government. That's a carrot we can hold out to local planners and elected officials who generally fear the ongoing erosion of the tax base with what they perceive are increasing needs for expensive public services.
    Now, sustainability issues are addressed in some General Plans, but not in ways that are linked. Most planners, who are required by their supervisors to quantify and defend all their planning decisions, simply don't understand the strategies to achieve sustainable communities. And generally planners are not permitted to do social-change planning per se, although recently economic planning has made it into General Plans in a big way. The results, unfortunately, are often the further fragmentation of our cities and towns.
    At the same time, founders of sustainable communities often don't understand, or only poorly understand, the specific terms and concepts used by planners. When ecovillagers do grasp the planning process, the time required to teach public agencies about the merits of ecovillages can take much valuable time away from actually building the community.
    Zoning is an important form of development control. Most zoning ordinances regulate land use, density, building mass, and parking. First used in the United States in the 1920s, some zoning ordinances are applied as if conditions have not changed since then.
    The problem with much zoning is that it rarely considers the environment in a wholistic way. Social and economic factors are not approached in an integral way. Land uses are not mixed to attain the "full-featured" qualities (such as residences and businesses in close proximity) essential for ecovillages.
    Fortunately, in recent decades helpful planning tools have been adopted in many jurisdictions around the country. Their use for sustainable community development requires the right combination of vision and chemistry from both local officials and ecovillage developers. The following is a summary of some of these beneficial planning tools: 
        Planned Unit Developments permit an integrated design approach to a large site, so that housing can be clustered, open space interconnected, and public facilities made more efficient. This is in contrast to the old single-lot-by-single-lot approach.
        Performance zoning sets project-specific criteria for such factors as noise, access to sunlight, pedestrian access, and the emission of pollutants. The older and still prevalent approach is to set zoning standards that may have limited relevance to the site or environmental conditions.
        Special exceptions or special land use districts are areas designated in General Plans for case-by-case review when developers wish to proceed with projects that meet the General Plan's intent for those areas. This tool is intended to permit greater flexibility or to achieve innovative types of projects and works only where it is not abused and maintains the integrity of the general plan. This planning tool was used for EcoVillage at Ithaca.
        Bonus regulations can be a win-win, trade-off system. The jurisdiction can permit higher densities, exceptions to parking requirements or other bonuses if the project in turn provides public improvements, helps preserve open space or achieves other planning goals.
        Local governments can allow negotiated development, sometimes in the form of "development agreements." This tool can: 1) permit some exceptions to local policies, if it can be demonstrated that the proposed project is beneficial to the community; and 2) assure both the jurisdiction and the developer that each party will carry out its part of the agreement.
        Cluster development permits the placing of all of the allowed dwelling units close together rather than evenly distributed across the landscape. Most jurisdictions allow clustering permit so long as the "area average" remains the same. That is, if you have a 440-acre parcel zoned R-40, you are allowed to build 11 houses. Traditionally, you were required to put each house on its own 40-acre parcel. By clustering you can put all the units on one acre, so that the rest of the land is preserved as open space.
    San Luis Obispo County, on California's central coast, recognizes clustering as a positive planning tool. San Luis Obispo has a designation called "agricultural cluster" in which the number of allowable houses on the property can be doubled, provided that they are all concentrated on 5 percent of the land, leaving the other 95 percent as open space or in agricultural use. This means that on the 440 acres described above, 22 houses could be built but on no more than 22 acres. An ecovillage, of course, would want to have more than 22 units of housing, along with a variety of other uses, all compactly built.
    Even to create an agricultural cluster zone, San Luis Obispo county requires an environmental impact report. These reports are often time consuming and expensive and may be generally irrelevant to ecovillage development, because the process may provide little opportunity to explain the regenerative aspects of ecovillages. The latest word from San Luis Obispo is that the county supervisors are working to create a new zoning designation that will further recognize the value of sustainable development.
    Building codes are intended to impose quality control: to protect unsuspecting buyers from unscrupulous builders and incompetent do-it-yourselfers from themselves. Building codes tend to be a bit narrow-minded, assuming that every house built is going to fall down if it doesn't have walls made of two-by-fours on 16-inch centers. Houses that don't follow the building code to the letter can still be permitted, but often require a licensed architect and a structural engineer to sign off on the plans, adding several thousand dollars to the cost. 
    The California building code now includes an owner-built designation ("Class K"), which basically says that if you build your own house it's your own business. But there are still requirements, such as a percolation test for the septic system, electrical common sense, and minimal earthquake safety restrictions. The code also recently added specifications for strawbale construction.
    Technically, everything you do to a building's structure requires a permit, short of changing paint or trim. Greywater systems are now legal in the State of California with a number of restrictions.  

    A Report from Arcata, California
    There are a number of city and county officials in California who not only know what sustainable community development means but are anxious to help it happen. In San Luis Obispo, Mendocino, and Humboldt counties, we spoke with county supervisors who would very much like to see such developments in their jurisdictions. Humboldt County Supervisor Julie Fulkerson said, "The county is just waiting for someone to do it."
    Some of these forward-thinking officials are members of the Local Government Commission, a nonprofit organization which promotes livable communities and sustainable development practices. The Local Government Commission functions as an information clearinghouse on such issues and sponsors an annual conference on the subject. (For more information, call 916-448-1198).
    In Arcata (Humboldt County, California), the city government is actually planning the bare bones infrastructure of an ecovillage: a "pedestrian-oriented clustered mixed-use development with provision for urban agriculture." Rather than establishing a special zoning designation, the city intends to create a more detailed "specific plan" (as distinct from a General Plan) that will include community gardens, natural drainage areas, and bike paths. The site was once a timber mill. When the plan is approved, the city and the timber company will be looking for a developer to make it happen.
    The situation isn't perfect, of course. Like any new development, the proposed plan is meeting opposition from local residents who don't want more people or more buildings, ecologically designed or not. The City of Arcata plans to annex the site and hook it up to city water and power. Because the site is not contiguous with the city limits, this promises to cost several million dollars. Further, the intervening land, currently in pasture, would likely be developed as well. This too is generating local opposition, but it is clear that in general the community would like to see green development happen. 

    And in Los Angeles
    As a result of the long-term advocacy efforts of CRSP (a resource center for small ecological cooperative communities), the Housing Element of the Los Angeles General Plan actually contains a proposed program for a "Model Environmental Village," which will demonstrate sustainable neighborhood development in which physical, social, and economic systems are effectively integrated (Program-80). That policy became official in 1993, and this year the L.A. Community Redevelopment Agency and Housing Department have allocated funds to CRSP for its first apartment building acquisition in the L.A. Eco-Village demonstration neighborhood, which CRSP coordinates. The two block Eco-Village neighborhood is located in a much larger community redevelopment area which is committed to being "guided by the principles of sustainable development," another public policy that's been put in place by forward-thinking public officials. 
    Los Angeles's new General Plan Framework makes provisions for transit and pedestrian-oriented mixed-use communities around transit stations. This is true in a number of other cities across the country, as well. 

    These examples show that intentional community founders committed to sustainability and willing to move to locations where public policy is already favorable to ecovillage development, could make a very big difference in a relatively short time!
    Rachel Freifelder is in the Ph.D. program in Agroecology and Sustainable Community Development at U.C. Davis. She lives in the N Street Cohousing Community in Davis and is an active member of the Dancing Rabbit network which continues its research for planning a "radically sustainable" community. She can be reached at
    Gina Baker is a graduate student in Architecture and Urban Studies at the University of Virginia doing research on ecovillages andsustainable communities. She can be reached at    Steve Lafer is a planning consultant who lives in Oakland.