Eco Village gets OK from Peterborough planning board

  • From left: Peterborough Planning Board members Stephanie Hurley, Gary Gorski (alternate) and Carl Staley on Nov. 14.

  • Chad Branon, left, of Fieldstone Land Consultants gives a presentation on the proposed subdivision at Walden Eco Village to the Planning Board Nov. 14. SCOTT MERRILL photos / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 11/17/2022 2:22:13 PM

The Peterborough Planning Board approved a revised application from Walden Eco Village for a proposed subdivision, but hard feelings still remain from the owner and nearby neighbors who oppose the project.

The plan approved Monday includes 19 house lots with open space, with seven lots being served by existing, shared septic and a shared well. It differs significantly from the original proposal brought to the board three years ago and comes in the wake of evictions, an out-of-court settlement and an outstanding lawsuit that goes to trial next spring.

Akhil Garland, owner of Walden Eco Village and Utopia Living, Inc., said after the meeting he has mixed feelings about the Planning Board’s decision.

“We had no choice but to sanitize the plan,” Garland said. “I’m happy that one step was taken, but super disappointed and distraught about the plan itself and the whole process.”

That process, Garland said, began with hope in the fall of 2019 when he introduced it as a way to create a communal living experience for people on the former Well School property to then-Town Planner Peter Throop.

“Since then it has been years of the same rinse-and-repeat cycle,” Garland said, explaining that he believes he was made out to be a villain as the years ticked on. “I’m encouraged about possibilities for the future, but really discouraged about the fact that the planner and others in town were originally excited about the idea.”

Walden Eco Village on Middle Hancock Road, a 41-acre development that contained a total of 15 small residences, was originally intended to be temporary housing for faculty and staff of the Well School. Until December 2020, the houses were leased as permanent residences, rented for prices up to $1,400 for the larger buildings and $495 for the smallest. Residents shared laundry and cooking facilities.

Garland, who grew up on the property and then lived for seven years in the Eco Village buildings, said that three years ago he was told by the town planner that Eco Village could be a model for people which could be replicated around the state and beyond.

“Three key [town officials] turned over right when I was going through this process and that’s when the bomb went off,” Garland said. “They originally never had any problems.”

In December of 2020, the town of Peterborough, Code Enforcement Officer Timothy Herlihy and Fire Inspector Lt. Scott Symonds did an inspection of the entire property, and determined that 14 of the buildings were being rented as individual dwellings and noted numerous violations of town code, zoning ordinance and site plan review regulations. The structures were not properly permitted as permanent residences, and the town ordered the buildings be vacated. A tenant group that included Corinne Chronopoulos, Sarah Trento, Michelle O’Mahony and Griffin Kelley filed suit shortly after their eviction and eventually settled out of court.

In March 2021, the Town of Peterborough was added as a third-party defendant to the case, with the plaintiffs alleging the town was “unreasonable and unlawful” in issuing a cease-and-desist order with no prior notice, despite having longstanding knowledge of the property and the nature of the homes on it, and only providing five days for tenants to vacate, in the middle of the winter and amidst COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. That lawsuit goes to trial next spring.

One of Garland’s tenants, Pearl Ramsey, lived in a house at Walden Eco Village for eight months before being evicted in December 2020. Ramsey, a performing artist who has since returned to her home in Chicago, said the community where she lived had the potential to bridge gaps in communication between people and to serve as a model of diversity. She believes the handling of the situation was discriminatory and abrupt.

“It’s worthy of discussion,” she said, referring to what she believes is a historical bias that exists in Peterborough and other towns in the region against people coming in from out of town. “They had no right to sabotage someone’s ability to create a new vision of housing. An apology should be given.”

The proposal made to the Planning Board Nov. 14 came out of a July meeting when the board asked for changes to the plan that would take away the shared spaces Garland hoped to have on the land. Those shared spaces included a farm, barn and cleaning house, as well as a hobby-maker space and other amenities, including a hot tub.

“They sanitized what was a beautiful plan by removing all of these wonderful concepts,” Garland said, adding that he believes what happened is an issue of exclusionary zoning that is happening all over the country. “Towns manipulate things behind the scenes to work the way they need them or want them to work so that its liked by neighbors. I’m really disappointed by the plan last night, but I’m not giving up.”

During the meeting, Planning Board Chair Stephanie Hurley said she didn’t want to make a final decision because she had not fully reviewed the plan. This received some pushback from Chad Branon of Fieldstone Land Consultants, who designed the plans for Garland.

“All of those revisions were done to address numerous staff memos and requests,” Branon said. “We were here back in July, and the board asked us to meet with staff and come up with consensus for what was allowed. Unfortunately, we were unable to do this because of legal issues. But we think we’ve made the necessary revisions. The revisions we made were really just shifting the lots around.”

The board also addressed lot-size calculations and a kiln that is on the property. It was decided that the lot-size calculation correctly allows for the number of lots placed in their respective locations. The location of the kiln was also discussed and then dismissed after former Planning Board member Ivy Vann reminded the board this had already been discussed at a prior meeting.

“I thought the board had made their decision on the kiln,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s any advantage to discussing it again. It’s permitted and already there.”

Other issues included building and fire codes, and Town Planner Danica Melone said the applicant “was covered from a building and fire perspective. Once they are done with this, Tim [Herlihy] and [Fire Chief Ed Walker] will look at other structures.”

Anna Carter of Middle Hancock Road was concerned about the aquifers in the area.

“I haven’t heard any discussion about this, and I feel like every other hearing I’ve been to it was never clarified,” she said. “Do they have any idea about the aquifer all these houses are tapping into. How will it impact all the other wells in the neighborhood?”

Melone informed her that the outcome of a study done on this project showed no red flags regarding aquifers.

Mary Lord, a resident of Middle Hancock Road, said she had many concerns, including the issue of quarter-acre lot size.

“I wouldn’t take this project lightly and let it slip through,” she said. “We are residents who have been here for generations. Please take that into consideration when you’re thinking about the approval of this project. It comes from the outside of town and we need to protect people who have built this town.”

The board approved the subdivision proposals as well as the conditional use permit (CUP) by a vote of 5-2 with Hurley and Andrew Dunbar voting no. The approval of the CUP, which included a small change to road widths and a fire pond, was granted on the condition that Walker will confirm the proposed road widths and fire pond meet his needs.

Garland, for now, said his next step will be to go to the ZBA to apply for a variance so people will be able to share amenities on the property.

“I’m not giving up on the dream … on what was proven to work,” he said. “With these permissions in hand. I’m going to go to the Zoning Board and ask for a variance and say, ‘Let’ s collaborate here and understand what the options are.”

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