How Yarrow Ecovillage Got "Ecovillage Zoning"
By Michael Hale
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.
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.
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.
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.
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- Whole Village Moves Ahead — Oct ’08
- Is The Farm an Ecovillage? — Oct ’08
- What We Can Learn from Ecovillage Sieben Linden — Jan ’09