A community solution: new land trust in Warner provides access to farming and housing

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 08-29-2023 3:00 PM

On a rainy day in Warner, the rivers roar around Loud Lane, in conversation with the birds, bugs and other critters on the dead-end dirt road. It’s such a symphony of sound, that when Nico Kimberly moved into a restored farmhouse on the street, he thought the noise lent itself to the street name.

Others heard the lore of old parties in the farmhouse on Foster Farm. But in recent decades, it has sat empty, a dilapidated structure in dire need of repair. Until Kawasiwajo Community Land Trust convened in 2020.

Now, the white shingled house is the site of a new community mission to make land more accessible and affordable in the area, as a pilot site for affordable housing through the trust.

But the story starts with a group of community members talking about the need for housing in the area and nine pianos in a hoarded farmhouse – where shelves of books turned a library into a laboratory of items left behind.

Kawasiwajo Community Land Trust

In a small town like Warner, conversations about expanding housing options can be synonymous with fears of multi-story apartment complexes.

Almost all the houses in the town of 3,000 people are single-family structures, with uniformed pastel-painted shingles and green grass on front lawns that residents say preserve the quaint character of Warner.

So when Ellie Brown began to think of solutions for long-term, affordable housing in the area – with a personal investment as a renter herself – her previous experience with a land trust on the West Coast came to mind.

Community land trusts are a longstanding model of affordable housing across the nation, where nonprofits purchase a plot of land and serve as the stewardesses of the property.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Youth rally against New Hampshire’s bill allowing medical aid in dying
As site testing begins on new middle school site, activists file to put location debate on the ballot
Lawyers and lawmakers assert the Department of Education is on the verge of violating the law
A May tradition, the Kiwanis Fair comes to Concord this weekend
Neighboring landowner objection stalls Steeplegate redevelopment approval
State senator passes out on senate floor

Oftentimes, with the land trust model, there is an emphasis on community engagement and involvement, leveraging these plots for affordable housing in the area or for a site that garners a common good – like agriculture.

It’s an investment that allows people to live, farm, shop and eat locally, all at the hands of local governance from the community board – elements of a community that Brown quickly saw in Warner.

“For this to work in Warner, it really felt like a good starting point,” she said. “There are a lot of other really interesting projects and people who are really involved with the community and really care about it.”

And it’s in line with the longstanding tradition of community engagement in Warner, where residents come together in town to find solutions to common problems. Warner was one of the first towns to recycle in New Hampshire and is among a handful that is solar-dependent.

“We’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how to maintain a local economy, a Main Street through community-supported agriculture and supporting and expanding local businesses,” said Neil Nevins, a board member of the land trust and long-time resident. “And in this case, improving trying to improve existing housing but also expanding access to more affordable housing.”

Now the land trust has a board of seven, and Foster Farm is the first project under its belt.

For Nancy Martin, who is a board member and longstanding chair of the town’s conversation committee, the idea of restoring houses like Foster Farm simply makes sense for the town.

“It’s a big old house. We have lots of big old houses in town, old Victorian houses. People don’t want that kind of house anymore. It’s just too hard to maintain,” she said. “But if you turned it into several apartments, you can provide affordable housing under a land trust for a number of families and save the old culture that the house was a part of.”

Refurbishing the house

To make the big old, Victorian house habitable again, it took a village. Literally.

Throughout the last year, tens of residents from Warner have stopped by the dilapidated home on Loud Lane to lend a hand.

The cleanup involved removing a few of the nine pianos that occupied the upstairs meeting room and tackling the shelves of books that engulfed the space.

And it also involved structural repairs – removing lead from all the windows, with the help of a new repair business in town, and putting in spray-foam insulation.

“This house, I mean, it’s beautiful now, and it was certainly charming then,” said Ruth Roudiez, the current tenant. “But inside was very imposing, quite a project. Nobody had lived in it for over 10 years.”

So when Roudiez and Nico Kimberly moved in last year, they threw a housewarming party and invited the 40-some community members who helped restore the home.

“That was really neat because then we got to see how people know each other in this community that we’re brand new to,” said Kimberly. “All these people came together to help us have a place to live. I mean, that’s something really special.”

Roudiez and Kimberly are local farmers in New Hampshire. For two decades Roudiez has worked on a variety of farms, but her main focus lies in landscape design – think creating pollinator and native plant gardens.

But when the two started dating in 2018, and Kimberly was working on an organic vineyard in Vermont, Roudiez began to learn more about organic grape growing.

Last year, they launched a business, NOK Vino (which are Kimberly’s initials) – focused on organic grape farming and winemaking.

They lease five vineyards across the state to grow the grapes, alongside a winemaking space in Concord.

The idea of having farmers occupy the land trust’s first home was an inherent tie to the established farming culture present in Warner.

“We have a number of conserved family farms in Warner and so we have a specific interest in farming. And this seemed like a good step forward,” said Martin. “We’ve heard from other farmers that they have no place for their people to live and so we started out with that idea in mind.”

Now, Kimberly and Roudiez are living and growing locally, with a new support system in Warner.

“You really need a community of people to get you where you want to go – whether it’s working with the grapevines or finding the next place to make wine or a place to live,” said Kimberly. “We’re really grateful to have the town of Warner. People here are very farming-focused and supportive.”

Retaining the next generation

Kimberly was born and raised in southern New Hampshire. And having lived and worked in neighboring states, he now sees that farming could be a key industry to attract and retain young people in the state.

Take Vermont for example. Kimberly worked on a vineyard and quickly saw how the agriculture industry – particularly focusing on grape growing and winemaking – has taken off in the last four or five years.

So why not make that the case in his home state?

“New Hampshire also has a lot of potential because people aren’t yet thinking of it as a place for wine or for cider, maybe peripherally or locally. But part of our mission is to say, you know, New Hampshire is actually really good for this,” he said.

Doing so would incentivize young farmers to move to the Granite State. But it also may lure New Hampshire natives, like Kimberly, back home to live and farm.

“What if this is a way to be part of a multi-pronged rural, agricultural revival that can connect people across generations and can bring new people into the state, but also retain some of the young people who grew up here,” he said.

In order to do that, there needs to be stable, affordable housing for these farmers. Kimberly and Roudiez see it first-hand –it’s not hard to convince friends to move to New Hampshire to farm. But the idea quickly loses lust when there’s not housing available.

“The most difficult thing is how do you make that sustainable over the long term? It’s one thing to invite people to come and maybe stay with you for a week or two to see if they like the job,” said Kimberly. “It’s another thing to say like, yeah, I can’t guarantee but we can find you a place to live that is stable for two to five years.”

Now they have that stability themselves through the community-oriented model. And now they hope to provide this for other farmers. Since moving into the house Roudiez has joined the land trust’s board.

The road to restoring their house started with community conversations about land access. Those will continue to be key tenants of the land trust’s work in the region.

“It doesn’t have to be an impediment to give access to housing. But it can be incorporated into this kind of model that can provide affordable access,” said Nevins.

]]>