Village Homes is a 3 1/2-year-old subdivsion here in which houses use the sun for energy and city planning encourages cooperation rather than the traditional seclusion among homeowners.
It is a place where it takes effort to be isolated, where cooperative living is encouraged almost to the point of being legislated.
The attempt to mold a mini-society in Village Homes has had some negative reactions. But the subdivision invig orates and delights most people who live there, while enervating and infurating a few. Davis is in central California, about 30 miles west of Sacramento.
All that stir, lifestyle and energy conservation stems from the purchase of 69 acres of tomato fields on the west edge of Davis by a developer named Michael Corbett. He has built 70 percent of the $38,000 to $130,000 houses that displaced the tomatoes.
When other contractors build in Village Homes, they adhere to convenants and restrictions Corbett established.
The subdivision's innovations include extra-narrow streets that absorb (and therefore radiate) less than the usual amount of heat. At times they cut air temperatures by as much as 10 degrees in the hot Sacramento Valley, according to solar consultant Marshall Hunt, a Village Homes resident and co-author of Davis' energy conserving building code.
A highly unusual and very simple above-ground drainage system (it's just a series of man-made streambeds and pools) returns more than 85 percent of rainfall to the local water table, compared with the 40 percent or 50 percent return rate of standard systems, Corbett said.
The drainage system so worried Davis city officials that they required Village Homes to post a $12,000 performance bond. To date, no one has tried to collect it.
Corbett, who can be more dictatorial than democratic, encourages the use of energy-saving small cars by means of an arm-twisting maneuver that is brilliant in its simplicity. He builds small carports.
And he discourages the great American sport of zooming around in cars by keeping streets narrow and making every one of them a cul de sac.
To eliminate "wasted" front lawn space, the developer got a variance for 15-foot setbacks, 10 feet less than called for by Davis ordinances.
Guidelines established by Village Homes' architectural review board encourage homeowners to fence their uncommonly small front yards, and mightily discourage traditional (and isolating) fences around back yards.
With a heavy-handed stroke of sociological-planning genius, Corbett made those back yards contiguous with commonly owned land to be commonly maintained by homeowners. Village Homes' 115 houses (to reach a maximum of 215 by 1981) are inconspicuously clustered in groups of eight, with each set of eight homowners responsible for a common area.
The result is that neighbors must either garden together, getting to know each other in the process, or hire a gardener. Most of them prefer to garden together.
Corbett meets with new homeowners to decide what will be planted where in their common areas. He recommends edible and drought-resistant crops. Then he invests about $3,000 to get landscaping started in each area, and bows out of the picture. Diversity among residents promotes diversity among common areas, some of which are mostly lawn, while others include row crops, vineyards, flowering white clover and small orchards.
Some Village homeowners are gluttons for cooperation. Besides gardening in common areas and maintaining their own small yards, they can be found toiling on weekend work parties that landscape public areas and tackle such construction projects as footbridges, small playgrounds and parts of the community swimming pool.
Corbett set aside 11 acres for agricultural use, three acres of which are contracted out to a farmer experimenting with year-round crop rotation. The remaining eight acres are in orchards, vineyards and row crops. The harvest is sold.
It seems only logical that Village Homes Should boast a village green and, sure enough, an acre is set aside for a manicured lawn that is popular for barbecuing, softball and the like. A couple of mini-parks and a public grassand-tree-covered area augment the green. They are all maintained by gardeners employed by a homeowners' association to which all Village homeowners must belong.
Further togetherness is encouraged throught a corporation controlled by the homeowners' association. It is developing a small commercial center and building 10 apartments units.
Homeowners will run a community center, where a 65-foot pool and a clubhouse are under construction, and the association plans to lease space in its commercial center to a private school in which youngsters from within and without the subdivision will be able to mingle.
All that organized neighborliness sits well with some Village homeowners.
"We moved here in July, primarily because of the solar aspects of the houses," said real estate salesman Jeff Jensen, 25. "We ended up recommending Village Homes primarily because of the community aspects."
Then there are dissidents like Steve Drach. He knows exactly where he stands, and it's not in Village Homes. "I don't like it. I just don't fit in," said he 30-year-old computer programmer.
Of the homeowners' association, with which Drach had a protracted battle about the adequacy of his gardening, he said, "On principle, I get irritated with a bunch of little nursemaids running around telling me what to do."
Despite his aggravation, Drach showed no signs of moving until he recently changed jobs and had to go to Chicago. Even then, he leased out his house rather than selling it, although there seems to be no scarcity of buyers for Village Homes.
Today, cooperative aspects of the subdivision are made clear to prospective buyers, but that information was not always so liberally dispersed before houses were sold. Many homeowners who squirm under the subdivision's social pressures, particularly those who brought homes in the first year of its existence, complain that they didn't know what they were buying into.
"I knew there was a homeowners' association, and that's all I knew," said Joyce Vermeersch, who purchased her house three years ago when the subdivision was just getting started.
"Then I began to sense I wasn't just buying a house, I was buying a way of life," recalled the 33-year-old nutritionist.
She complained to Corbett, who offered to refund her $500 deposit. While considering the offer, Vermeersch looked at "every house for sale in Davis in my price range." The result: Corbett kept the $500, Vermeersch kept the house.
But she remains aloof from the cooperative lifestyles enjoyed by most of her neighbors. "I don't have a lot in common with them," she said without rancor. "I feel like an outsider."
Pressure on Vermeersch to fall into steps is not overt. It's more subtle than that. The constraint to join the crowd is her awareness of the opportunity for cooperative living, and her knowledge that the majority of people in the subdivision like neighbors who participate in their days of life.
The attitudes of most Village Homeowners fall somewhere between the fervor of Jeff Jensen and the stand-offishness of Joyce Vermeersch.
They accept as inevitable the squabbles over what to plant in common areas and whether each area should be maintained as a single unit or divided into eight zones at responsibility. They consciously trade certain amounts of privacy for neighborliness, and exchange independence for cooperation. They know that cooperative living means cooperating, and that cooperating means making an effort to work with one another.
Village homeowners tend "to be young professionals, well educated (often with graduate degrees), earning a moderate income, white, single or newly married and active in a variety of leisure time activites, especially sports activities of some type," wrote Janice Graham Hamrin in her doctoral thesis in philosophy for the University of California Davis, copyrighted last year.
They also tend "to consider themselves to be politically liberal, independent thinkers, artistic, to value self-sufficiency, and to believe they (can) influence what happens in the world around them," she wrote.
The future may bring different kinds of people to Village Homes, predicted David Stea, environmental social scientist at University of California at Los Angeles' School of Architecture and Urban Planning.
"As the economic situation gets worse, and everybody I talk to predicts it will, I suspect this kind of living will become more and more attractive to people in the so-called mainstream," Stea said.
"Village Homes strikes me as the kind of place that might be more difficult to accept were it not for the economic squeeze," he continued.
"It's becoming more and more necessary to have not communal living, but cooperative living. Right now the cooperation is on a relatively low level. But the opportunity seems to be there for a highly cooperative community to emerge where people will find advantages in reducing the redundancy of having to own everything themselves."