Juniper Hill developers to offer a sneak peek at the properties and explain the cohousing concept

The Harrisonburg City Council approved the planned community, Juniper Hill Commons, on March 10, 2020.

By Logan Roddy, contributor

To celebrate National Cohousing Day on April 24, the organization Harrisonburg Cohousing will host an open house of the recently-approved development, Juniper Hill Commons, a multigenerational planned community on Keezletown Road. 

The organization is continuing to work on details of a comprehensive site plan to submit to the city for further approval. But the open house will serve to introduce members of the community to the cohousing concept and potentially to their future homes. The open house will be from noon to 3 p.m.

“What we’re planning to do is invite people in to give them tours of the property, show them where things are going to be laid out, have a chance to spend time with the local members, and to meet person-to-person and get to know some of the cohousing people that are in our community,” said Sue Freesen, who’s been involved in the project since 2017 and is planning Saturday’s event. “And we’ll get some outdoor games out.” 

Because cohousing is a much more involved way of living than the standard neighborhood, those interested in joining Juniper Hill must go through two levels of membership before becoming a homeowner in the community.  

“With cohousing you’re not just purchasing a home,” said Ervin Stutzman, who specializes in the building plans. “When people purchase a home in a standard neighborhood, they’re probably hoping that they have decent neighbors, but they wouldn’t even expect to know any of their names. Cohousing is very different. You’re buying into a community, and you get a house with it.” 

The Juniper Hill Commons development is slated to have 27 households included, clustered together in the forms of duplexes, triplexes, one “six-plex”, an apartment building, and one single family home. With close connection through shared walls will help save space, Stutzman said also explained that it’s more economical to build that way. He also said it’s a similar arrangement to condominium complexes where tenants have their own spaces like a yard and amenities like landscaping services, but with a key difference.

“This is a self-managed, owner-managed condominium so to speak,” Stutzman said. “Here’s where each member helps to make the decisions for the whole, and it’s small enough that everyone can have a part. You have meetings where people have input, and we place a high value on their voices being heard. We have attorneys, a physician, a couple teachers, so this is a group of people who like to decide things.”

Residents can choose one of two membership options, which come with fees. The associate membership, which costs $150, allows one to observe the community from the inside as a member and attend committee and general membership meetings. An equity membership, which costs $1,000, allows those members to vote on community issues and to reserve a home in the development.

“So that’s why you have a trial period,”Stutzman said. “You want to invest in these people you’re going to have to see every once in a while, in the long run.”

The concept of cohousing, which originated in Denmark in the 1960s,  has grown in popularity in recent years.. Nancy Gunden, who is the membership coordinator at Juniper Hill, said the organization already has more than two thirds of the development’s homes reserved for owners, whom they hope can move in into the development in 2022.

“We do have a membership agreement, but it’s more a self-selection process in that if you’re a member you’ll want to agree with the philosophy of cohousing, which kind of takes us back in time to the old village concept,” Gunden said. 

That’s where the sense of community comes in. 

“People knew each other, people supported each other,” Gunden said. “And we intend to have in our common house some neighborhood-wide meals every week so people can rub elbows, get to know one another. We’ll have amenities in that common house that are owned and shared by the entire community. So it’s really a philosophical shift from what we all know as the standard North American community.”

Gunden also included that since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, membership numbers have more than doubled, which she attributed to the desire for connection many people felt while living in quarantine.

“People came to terms with the need for connection and community because we were forced to live isolated, sheltered lives. And so most people who contact me say, ‘Hey, I’ve been thinking about this for years. I need more community in my life,’ so it’s been a very interesting journey through this pandemic,” Gunden said.

Stutzman said the group’s shift to remote meetings through Zoom leveled the playing field for those who are interested in cohousing — but don’t live in the Harrisonburg area.

“And so we have a member who lives in Japan, and she’s fourteen hours away from us but she still gets on Zoom,” Stutzman said. “Cohousing is a niche market. It’s a very specific kind of housing that people look for. And people are willing to move across the country to live in a cohousing neighborhood if it suits them.”

Aside from the community emphasis, cohousing also focuses on reducing people’s ecological footprint by consolidating resources and incorporating green energy into the planning stages.

“These are homes that will be built with heavy insulation and easily heated or cooled. Solar is our aspiration — that all the homes will be wired for solar, but it will be up to homeowners whether or not they will actually go that way,” Stutzman said. “We want to use the land in a sustainable way in how we garden, compost, the use of resources, and even matters like pesticides. We’re cautious about these things because we want to be friendly to our planet.”

Freesen said a key objective is to encourage sharing resources. 

“We will have a work area where woodworkers can share tools, and an art room,” Freesen said. ‘We’re looking at different things that will be shared among the community. Maybe we’ll have two or three lawnmowers that are shared because everyone does not need their own lawnmower.”

While they’re also considering the possibility of having two to three shared community vehicles, a lot of finer details  won’t be decided until the Commons is built and the owners settle into their new community. But cohousing has generated lots of buzz nationwide.

“The city especially likes our plan, because they do not want to keep having suburban sprawl on the edges of town, with large green lawns that you have to fertilize and mow, they would rather have smaller homes with more dwellings and larger green space that everyone can use,” Stutzman said.

He said while community involvement and familiarity are core values, each family or owner having their own residence helps preserve each person’s privacy.

“There are different levels for socialization — your front yard, the pedway, the common house. If you’re in those spaces you’re saying, ‘I’m open for conversation, I’m open for interaction.’ And about 60% of the people in cohousing are introverts, maybe more. People who want to get involved and interested in each other, but maybe in limited times. And if you need space, you can just go to your place and close the door and rejuvenate,” Stutzman said.

Gunden said another aspect of cohousing is the rethinking of individual property and space.

“How much space do you need to live a happy, productive life? We all will own an equal share of the common house and the outside amenities in our neighborhood. And that affords us the ability to live more ecologically, with a smaller footprint, smaller consumption of resources, but that’s a real shift in our typical culture.” 

And that will be up to each family and homeowner to figure out. 

“Does every child need his or her own bedroom? We’re brought up that way,” Gunden said. “But in cohousing, our homes will be smaller spaces and we will do more outside, more in the common house, more in connection with each other.”

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