Olympia Cohousing group hopes to expand

Staff writerApril 5, 2014 

Olympia’s first cohousing community is navigating more red tape in order to build a new “common house” and more dwelling units.

Located in west Olympia, Woodard Lane Cohousing is a 2.34-acre neighborhood within a neighborhood. In April 2010, residents moved into Woodard Lane’s three finished “fourplexes,” each containing four dwelling units. One unit has served as a temporary common house with a kitchen, tables, guest bedroom, washer, dryer, bulletin boards and a big-screen TV.

The cohousing community’s residents are also their own developers. Woodard Lane is working with the city on a zoning amendment that would allow two more dwelling units above the property’s new common house.

The city’s hearing examiner has approved the acquisition of two Transfer Development Rights, known as TDRs. The process is a tool for increasing density in a development by shifting one parcel’s rights to another. In this case, the rights would come from a rural landowner in Thurston County.

Woodard Lane’s current density is eight residential units per acre. The community needs the extra density to accommodate 18 total units because there are plans to build another fourplex when enough buyers come forward, said co-founder Liv Monroe.

The Olympia City Council is expected to approve the amendment April 15. Monroe said construction of the new common house could begin as soon as June and would last six to eight months.

Throughout its existence, Woodard Lane has attracted opposition from some adjacent homeowners, specifically in regard to buffering and the location of trash bins.

One of those neighbors, Debra Van Tuinen, moved into her home 24 years ago. At the time, the area behind her house at Thomas Street and Muirhead Avenue was undeveloped woods. Van Tuinen said the condos of Woodard Lane defy city code by being out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood and too close to her home.

To mitigate complaints, Woodard Lane erected a wooden fence along its eastern border and relocated the dumpsters to the property’s southern edge. Van Tuinen said she’s happy to see the changes after fighting the development with help from an attorney. However, she laments her loss of privacy and believes that Woodard Lane has reduced the value of her home.

“They’ve taken my afternoon sun,” Van Tuinen said from her back porch. “I’d like them to conform to city code.”

Cohousing residents have fully functional private homes and also share facilities. Before moving in, Woodard Lane residents commit to participation in community life. This includes serving on committees, doing chores, hosting celebrations or cooking a shared meal for everyone. The concept differs from a commune, in which members tend to live under one roof and even share resources such as income.

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