A life together

Local neighborhood celebrates 20 years of community living

Tanha Luvaas and Brenda Bestle prepare snacks in the common house kitchen.

Tanha Luvaas and Brenda Bestle prepare snacks in the common house kitchen.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Where it’s at:
Valley Oaks Village is on Wild Oak Lane off Forest Avenue, two blocks from East Eighth Street by Bidwell Park. Visit www.chicocohousing.org for information.

Twenty-seven years ago—long before terms such as “sustainable living” and “tiny-house villages” had entered the American lexicon—a small group of Chicoans coalesced around a novel residential plan.

They embraced the vision of cohousing, defined as an intentional community of private houses clustered around shared space. Residents make decisions collectively, by consensus, and pool resources. Everyone has access to common areas and common tools; everyone contributes time and effort to maintaining the community.

The group, including spouses-to-be Jay Goldberg and Penny Paulus, met with resistance from people who dismissed their development as a hippie commune.

Even after they purchased a 4.75-acre parcel near Bidwell Park and received unanimous approval from the city’s Planning Commission, their project passed the City Council 5-2 with a less-than-resounding endorsement from one of the aye voters. As Goldberg recalls, Councilwoman Mary Andrews said: “They can build it if they want, but it’s going to fail.”

Valley Oaks Village opened in 1996 with 28 homes.

All 28 remain, as do the common house, swimming pool and other amenities that the residents—60 percent of them founding members—showed to the public April 30. That day’s commemoration coincided with a broader event, the National Cohousing Open House, comprising fellow members of the Cohousing Association of the United States.

“It’s to show an alternate type of neighborhood,” Goldberg said, contrasting alternate with alternative, since he doesn’t see his community as radical.

Jill Lacefield, one of the initial homebuyers after moving from Seattle, called cohousing “an idea whose time has come, a good idea for a lot of people, so anybody who invests in it wants to share that idea.”

Goldberg said several other groups in Chico started similar projects but “didn’t quite make it.” Start-up challenges abound, particularly acquiring land and securing requisite approvals. Valley Oaks Village’s founders took four years and multiple failed transactions before landing their property.

“There’s a lot of effort you have to put in,” he said. “It takes gumption.”

Physically, Valley Oaks Village is roughly rectangular with parking along one side and a fenced dirt trail surrounding much of the rest of the perimeter.

Houses, clustered at each end and connected in different configurations, face inward toward tree-lined walking trails that lead to the central core—site of the common house, pool, grassy area, jungle gym and main garden. The common house includes a kitchen, multipurpose room, living room, classrooom/recroom, laundry and two guest rooms.

The homes vary in size and floor plan, with six options total. Over the years, some residents have moved within the community to upsize or downsize as per their family needs.

Valley Oaks Village currently houses many empty-nest seniors. This community has literally (to borrow another trendy term) aged in place. Parents raised their children together and sent them off to college together. Youngsters still live there, just not as many.

Goldberg, 67, and Paulus, 65, have space to spare in their two-story house with their son grown.

“I did go the fantasy route of living somewhere else,” Paulus said. “My husband and I own a nice rental, a lot of land around. But it just took a little trip down that street to know I did not want to be anywhere else; I could not imagine living in a regular neighborhood. It just feels so isolated to me.”

She’s accustomed to camaraderie and support forged from years of dinners, events, chores and just passing people on the path.

This is why Paulus, who’s retired, and Lacefield, who’s 63 and teaches at Butte College, see cohousing as a great option for seniors seeking to live independently but not in an independent living facility.

“I would come here for a retirement place, because it’s just got easy living,” Lacefield said.

“It’s very attractive for all ages,” Paulus injected.

Though Valley Oaks Village has no homes available, the community receives and welcomes membership inquiries (see info box).

Overall, the plan has penciled out. Goldberg points to the pool, which scoffing neighbors could not fathom so many families sharing. In drought conditions, a community pool offers scale efficiency—as does a communal lawn.

The houses aren’t as “green” as some built today with modern materials and new technology. They’re also larger and more appointed than than first-time visitors may expect of an eco-focused community.

Yet, Valley Oaks Village has no plans for an update.

“In these years we look at what more can we do together, because there’s a little bit of a restlessness,” Lacefield said. “But then we remind ourselves how we’ve done…. Every time people turn into our driveway, they say it feels like a sanctuary here, because it really has worked to that degree.”