Elgin Agrarian Community Promises Co-op Living on the Blackland Prairie
“It’s like an urban twist on traditional farming”
On Friday afternoons, residents of the Elgin Agrarian Community will knock off work, return to their energy-efficient homes, and then stroll down a flower-lined path to the farm just beyond their spacious front porches. After picking up their weekly 10-pound allotments of fresh produce, they may strike up a conversation with their neighbors. The on-site brewery is just a few steps away – perhaps the discussion could continue over a local craft brew in the taproom? After the glasses are drained, there's time to sign the kids up for whittling and canning classes and take a quick dip in the pool. And then – well, probably early to bed, because tomorrow there's a co-op retreat, wherein residents will decide what kind of compost-collection service to implement next month.
While it sounds like a parody of an Austin utopia, the development is real, and the first phase is planned to open by late spring 2017. When complete, it will add 80 modestly sized homes, a 3.5-acre farm, and other amenities to the northern edge of Elgin, about a 30-minute drive from Central Austin. Elgin's fertile Blackland Prairie soil has drawn farmers since the town was established in the late 1800s; today, fields of corn and sorghum line Highway 290, a heavily used commuter route into Austin. Ever more Elgin residents are expected to use that road as the town's population grows from an estimated 11,000 residents in 2010 to double that number by 2030. While city officials say they welcome the expansion, they want the right kind of change: growth that will honor and build on Elgin's agricultural heritage. And that's where the Elgin Agrarian Community comes in. The vision developer Sean Garretson has for the site, currently a tangle of mesquite and chigger-filled tall grasses, is a far cry from the boxy subdivisions that have devoured farmland between Austin and Manor. Instead, it will combine sustainable agriculture, cooperative ownership and governance, and the preservation of local culture in one 24-acre parcel – if all the moving pieces fit into place.
"It's like an urban twist on traditional farming for Elgin," Garretson says. "It will appear as a New Urbanism kind of development and mixed-use community, but the underlying principles of a co-op are right under that surface."
The inspiration for the Elgin Agrarian Community – or EACo for short – came from several disparate projects. A few years ago Garretson's company, Pegasus Planning and Development, was hired to recommend economic development and land use strategies for Meridian, a suburb of Boise, Idaho. Meridian's leaders were, like Elgin's, interested in preserving the town's agricultural history as it grew. One concept Garretson and his research manager, Donald Jackson, recommended for the town was residential agrarian developments, or "agrihoods." An agrarian community is a master-planned residential development built around a farm instead of a golf course or shopping center. Similar agrihoods are spread across the country in Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, and Vermont; a 1,150-acre agrarian development called Harvest is underway in Argyle, Texas, near Denton.
Jackson and Garretson also filed the idea away for use closer to home. Around that time, they learned about the Mary Christian Burleson Foundation's efforts to preserve the Burleson homestead, a 19th-century house that belonged to a pioneer woman who played a key role in the founding of Elgin. The home, which badly needed repairs, was on a parcel of land too big for the foundation to purchase itself. Garretson decided Pegasus would purchase the entire 24-acre tract and donate one acre back to the foundation, on the condition that it quickly restored the house. The rest would become an agrarian development.
Meanwhile, Pegasus project manager Jillian Anderson was looking for a suitable place to open the microbrewery she co-owns, Osmo's Daughter. Garretson realized the brewery and taproom could occupy a corner of the remaining 23 acres, near the Burleson homestead, which the Mary Christian Burleson Foundation plans to use as a retreat center focused on Texas women's history. Both brewery and homestead would appeal to EACo residents and draw visitors from Elgin and beyond.
Rounding out the nonresidential side of the development are an event center, suitable for weddings; a fitness center, pool, and spa; and 11 "casitas and cabanas," small accommodations for overnight guests. All will be owned by Garretson and his partners (but will offer discounts for residents). The various enterprises will play off one another; wedding guests can book spa treatments, for instance, and stay in the casitas. Anderson says Osmo's Daughter will use local ingredients like loquats, peaches, herbs, and sorghum in its "farm-to-glass" brews and offer a beer called Proud Mary in Burleson's honor. The event center can host activities co-produced by the Burleson Foundation, Osmo's Daughter, and the farm – remember those canning classes for the kids?
The trade-off for living in this apparent paradise? You have to really like your neighbors – or at least trust them to make smart decisions about the space you share.
Emphasis on Community
Garretson's decision to structure the residential part of EACo as a co-op was based on a recommendation by Jackson, his former research manager, who now works for the city of Austin's Economic Development Department. Jackson, a co-op enthusiast who helped form the Austin Cooperative Business Association, says the cooperative model makes sense for agrarian communities. In such developments, the open space – the farmland – is the primary amenity, which can be managed by a condo or co-op structure. "Co-ops are designed to make it easy for people to share amenities and have simple administrative oversight of them," he says. "There's an assumption of shared responsibility and shared ownership that I think attracts people who want a bit more of an intentional community in their neighborhood."
In most neighborhoods, the residents are folks who bought their house for the location, the floor plan, and the price. In "intentional communities," residents also hold common values including a commitment to engaging with their neighbors. The co-op structure of EACo has drawn people who view the common ownership of the residential section as an opportunity rather than a minefield. Thus far, 18 of them have become "subscribers": prospective residents who have put down $500 and signed a letter of intent to make a down payment once ground is broken. The steering committee of subscribers that's currently organizing the co-op will later be replaced by an elected board that handles the co-op's business decisions and disputes between members.
"I grew up knowing all of my neighbors, and all the kids on the street were friends, and everyone looked out for each other," says Kirsten Edwards, 35, who plans to move to EACo with her partner and 4-year-old son. "We're really wanting to get back to that and live in a community where people do know us and we know them. I feel like the folks who are choosing to live in EACo will be open and receptive to building those relationships."
For Edwards and her partner, the biggest attraction of the development is also its biggest challenge. "A co-op does mean that you're having meetings with people, and you're having to agree on things cooperatively, and that does leave the door open for disputes," she says. "It is a big experiment for people like us, who are used to just owning our home and doing our own thing. Do we want to open our lives up to more people in a really meaningful way, but also open ourselves up to the potential for sitting through really long meetings in which people argue about kind of inane things?"
Clifford May is willing to make that gamble. May, a retired geophysicist and the community's first subscriber, was drawn to the co-op because of its similarity to cohousing, a type of neighborhood where families have separate homes but commit to neighborly behavior in the form of weekly shared meals and group projects to improve their community center or garden.
"Folks with the standard American background don't get very connected to the neighbors next door or on a couple of blocks around them, so cohousing tries to take that just a gentle notch up," he says. He sees EACo's housing cooperative as offering many of the same benefits, but distinct from other cohousing projects in one important way: "It's developer-driven, which means it will happen," he says. "These projects are so big that when amateurs get together and talk about doing cohousing or a housing cooperative, they're typically not prepared to fund a contract for the construction of the whole thing or locate a developer who will do that for them. So it doesn't happen. [In EACo's case] the future residents have had a fairly light load, whereas in the typical cohousing group that meets and never goes anywhere, it's because they have to figure everything out."
The bulk of the organizational work has been shouldered by Brian Donovan, a former Wheatsville board member and director of the Austin Cooperative Business Association who is now a co-director of the Detroit-based Cooperation Group. Garretson hired the Cooperation Group to recruit and organize members of the residential cooperative. Under Donovan's guidance, the steering committee has drafted the certificate of formation, which establishes the co-op as a corporation in the eyes of the state of Texas, and bylaws, which articulate how the co-op will be governed. Now it's working on the occupancy agreement, the document spelling out the expectations for members of the co-op. Some elements of the agreement are typical for homeowners' associations – rules about pets and what percentage of units can be rented – while others will reflect the priorities of EACo and, more specifically, the current steering committee.
"There's things like, 'Are we going to ban guns in the occupancy agreement?'" says future resident and steering committee member Dave Rogers. "One of the people on the steering committee says, 'I'm a hunter, I own guns, and this is a nonstarter for me if you try to ban guns.' A mother's there saying, 'I've got a [young] child, and I don't want any guns around.' In one conversation we pretty much came to a resolution around that. There's a willingness to accommodate these very different kinds of positions around gun control because of respect for individual differences, balanced well with a respect for everybody else."
Rogers, 66, a retired health administrator, says he was skeptical when he arrived at the first informational meeting about EACo. But he signed a letter of agreement to become a resident by the meeting's end "because of the authenticity of the developer and people involved."
The presentations don't have the same effect on everyone. "There are so many question marks," says Briana Stone, a 36-year-old public interest lawyer who attended an informational meeting in May. "They're marketing it, and it sounds great, but without anything actually out there or anything you can see in writing, it's hard to believe." A member of Wheatsville, the Austin grocery co-op, and Black Star Co-op, the cooperatively owned brewpub, Stone was drawn to the development for its emphasis on community-oriented housing. She describes herself as an "enthusiastic observer" of the development. "Overall I think it's a really exciting project, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens with it," she says, "but for now I've decided to just watch."
No Promises – But a Lot of Options
The project's timeline is ambitious: By late spring, when the first houses are built, Garretson plans for the farm to be operational. He has hired Colin Mitchell, 26, to be EACo's full-time resident farmer; co-op residents are welcome to volunteer labor but aren't required to do so. As soon as the land is cleared this fall, Mitchell and his business partner will build raised beds and plant cover crops while other crews construct the barn and a greenhouse for seedlings. Meanwhile, experts at Ten Acre Organics will advise the farmers on the construction of the aquaponics system, a closed-loop method for raising vegetables and fish. The fish excrement is used as fertilizer for the vegetables – mostly salad greens, herbs, and vine crops like tomatoes and peppers – and the plants absorb nutrients that would otherwise accumulate in the water and make it unsuitable for fish. The EACo aquaponics setup will be a 12,000-square-foot indoor facility where, shielded from the volatility of Texas weather, crops can grow faster and more predictably than they can in the ground. "For the crops we grow, mostly salad greens and herbs, we get 10 to 20 times the yield compared to the same amount of space in the field," says Ten Acre co-founder Michael Hanan. "Because we use the same water over and over again, we use 95 percent less water than if we were growing the same crops in the field." Those advantages make it possible for the aquaponics setup to produce the bulk of the 800 pounds of produce the farm will need to generate each week to provide each household's 10-pound allotment once EACo is built out.
The farm, including the aquaponics system, will be owned by the co-op, and Mitchell will report to its board of directors. Half of residents' monthly fees, currently estimated at $200 to $250, will go toward farm costs, including the farmers' salaries. In return, residents will receive their weekly produce bundle. It's one component of what Garretson markets as the development's affordability. He often stresses that housing affordability is affected by more than the price of a house; people's total cost of living includes food, transportation, day care, and utilities. EACo, he says, can help with all of these.
The 80 houses will be affordable – compared to Austin prices – partly because they're in Elgin, and partly because of their compact size and design. The homes range from a 623-square-foot "tiny house" and a 764-square-foot "carriage house," with an apartment over a garage, for less than $150,000, to a two-story, three-bedroom, 1,407-square-foot home for $258,000. Buyers will have access to down payment assistance programs, and USDA New Markets Tax Credits will help keep the overall development costs down. Energy efficiency, rainwater catchment, and rooftop solar panels will trim utility bills.
Other aspects of EACo's affordability claim are more hypothetical. Garretson's "transportation" pitch includes the potential future Capital Metro Green Line between Elgin and Downtown, a project a Capital Metro spokeswoman said isn't planned in the immediate future; it would be at least five years from the time the project was funded until trains run between Austin and Manor (the leg from Manor to Elgin would be built later). Currently, a round-trip bus ride from Elgin to Downtown Austin costs $11. Garretson also suggests that residents can save on child-care costs by forming a day care cooperative in the community building they'll own – a project that would involve licensing and a substantial time commitment.
Garretson describes EACo as a "platform" where such cost-saving measures are possible, though he can't guarantee they'll happen. The community building, for instance, will be designed to accommodate child care, so that if the day care co-op does form, it won't have to retrofit the structure. The co-op might also save money on maintenance costs by opting to mow and repair common areas itself, instead of hiring professionals. Those savings could be passed along to residents in the form of reduced monthly fees. The co-op structure offers no promises – but lots of options.
It's worth noting that Garretson has more skin in the game than in a typical development project. He, too, has put down money to become an EACo resident, a decision he says was partly to escape the congestion of Austin. Elements of the project, such as the lap pool, the 0.9-mile trail around the whole tract, and even the aquaponics setup reflect his interests; Garretson is a swimmer and a mountain biker, and he raised tilapia – the fish that will be used in the aquaponics system – as a Peace Corps volunteer in Burundi in the early Nineties.
It's not unheard of for a developer to move into the community he's built, but in Garretson's case the decision involves not just a move but a commitment to the co-op. After an early-August retreat where future residents articulated a mission and vision for the community, Garretson said he felt emotional. "You could hear my voice crack when I brought everybody together at the end," he says. "I'm not a practicing Christian but just felt the need to have kind of a prayer. It was great to get to know these people in more depth, and hearing from them about why they're interested in this development was really heartening for me."
A Different Future for Elgin
As EACo's residents draft their guidelines for cooperative living, and the commercial elements of the development fine-tune their business plans, another group prepares for the project's October groundbreaking: Elgin residents. While some neighbors have raised concerns about traffic and light pollution, several Elgin locals have signed on as subscribers. City officials describe EACo as a welcome alternative to typical suburban subdivisions: It keeps at least some of the land in cultivation, instead of paving it over, and is attracting community-minded new neighbors.
"The challenges of a small town in Texas are that we want to grow but maintain our unique identity," says Keith Joesel, one of two Elgin city council members representing Ward 4, where EACo will be built. "We're lucky in Elgin to have three things almost simultaneously: a great small-town main street, rural Texas with incredible Blackland soils, and quick access to the young city that's Austin. The challenge with growth is being true to our character – and a development that features sustainable agriculture and the retention of green space on the prairie is a good fit."
Leaders like Joesel say they envision an Elgin that grows without abandoning its farming heritage. The city has received several USDA grants to determine how local food and agriculture can be part of Elgin's economic development strategy. "Elgin is fast becoming a center of local food and farming enterprise," says Sue Beckwith, the executive director of the Elgin-based Texas Center for Local Food. New businesses downtown reflect that shift; ATX Homemade Jerky recently opened a store on Main Street, and pickle makers Hat Creek Provisions will open a storefront and tasting room this month.
"We have a revitalizing downtown historic district that this neighborhood will probably have an affinity for," says Community Development Director Amy Miller. "It seems like the development has put together a unique package for people who value agriculture and knowing where their food comes from."
For Elgin resident Ava Cameron, EACo is a creative way for the city to grow and "a darn good fit" for the town. Cameron grew up spending weekends on family land outside Elgin and moved there in 2013. She now volunteers with the area's small farmers and the Mary Christian Burleson Foundation board. Cameron says she's heard a version of "the whole East Austin conversation" – the concern by longtime residents that new arrivals will change the neighborhood and raise taxes.
"My perspective on that is I don't really think anybody can say they don't think Elgin's going to change in the next few years," she says. "We know Austin is coming out this direction. If you accept the fact that change is coming, this seems like a great option."
The Elgin Agrarian Community holds sporadic information sessions. Find out more at www.elginagrarian.com.