“Our city is considering cluster zoning. Is this a good idea or isn’t it?” came a question from a friend the other day.

I think clustering is a good idea. I’m about to live in a housing cluster myself. But, like many good ideas, it’s easier to say than do.

Let me back off a minute and consider first the merits of zoning of any kind. In some towns around me zoning is still hotly denounced and regularly defeated at the polls. In other towns it is practiced calmly without producing the disasters foretold by the denouncers. The experience of neighbors doesn’t impress those who are convinced that zoning would be an infringement of their freedom almost as insidious as regulating their use of lethal weapons. On the other hand, it isn’t immediately obvious from looking at zoned towns that they look or perform better than unzoned ones. Zoning doesn’t appear to be either the menace or the panacea that its opponents and proponents portray.

Like most laws, zoning is intended to ensure that one person’s freedom does not come at the expense of another. I should be able to do what I want on my land, but not in a way that pollutes your water or blights your view or reduces your property value. I shouldn’t be allowed to raise your taxes or reduce your municipal services by constructing so many houses so fast that I strain the capacity of schools and roads.

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Most zoning plans are too weak to assure that essential fairness. They allow enormous growth. Water does get polluted; taxes do go up. And zoning often encourages wasteful settlement patterns, especially when it requires large lots.

The minimum two-acre or five-acre or 10-acre lot is written into town plans for a number of virtuous reasons. It provides room to separate septic tanks from wells. It separates neighbors, so they’re less likely to annoy each other with their freedoms. It slows growth. But it eats up land. It’s hard to think of a worse waste of wildland or farmland than a five-acre lot with a house in the middle, a long driveway and a huge expanse of lawn maintained by a droning two-stroke mower. It’s hard to think of a more effective way to raise town taxes than to spread out roads, snow-plowing, fire-fighting, garbage collecting, school bus routes, and, where they exist, public water mains and sewage lines. Large-lot zoning may keep down the number of cars, but it forces everyone to use a car to get anywhere.

Cluster zoning was invented to solve some of these problems. Imagine a 100-acre parcel in a five-acre zone — 20 houses allowed. It makes many kinds of sense to cluster those houses on, say, ten acres, leaving 90 acres open for farming, forestry, recreation, wildlife, the cleansing of air and water, the recharge of aquifers, quiet, beauty. The houses are easier to build and service that way. Roads, power lines, water systems can be shared. The open land raises the value of the homes.

That’s cluster development, also called planned unit development and other confusing names. Often the 90 acres left free is owned jointly by the 20 homeowners; sometimes it is sold as a separate lot. The open space can have various encumbrances against further development. If a simple covenant protects it for a limited time only, then cluster zoning is just an invitation to eventual dense development. A conservation easement, signing development rights over to an independent entity such as a land trust, protects the open land in perpetuity.

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Many town plans encourage clusters. I know of no place that requires them. Therefore they rarely happen. As I attempt to make one happen myself, I’m discovering why.

First of all, regulations are designed, for good reason, to put extra scrutiny on denser, multi-unit developments. The cluster of 22 homes I’m involved in (on four acres, leaving 250 acres open) has to jump through regulatory hoops we would never encounter if we spread out on ten acres apiece, drilled 22 separate wells and installed 22 septic tanks. Sharing our water systems, power lines, and driveways will save us and our town money in the long run, but in the short run it’s a regulatory headache.

Second, the real estate industry is geared up for individuality and separateness. Banks find it hard to think about a mortgage on a home with shared land, shared utilities, very near neighbors. Appraisers don’t know how to value such homes; real estate agents aren’t used to selling them.

The worst difficulty, though, is in our own heads. Raised in a frontier-minded, materialistic culture, we have many individual desires and little communal discipline. We want to burn brushpiles, run power tools, dig holes, play loud music, use smelly solvents, keep cats, dogs, horses. Clustering forces us to think about the effects of our actions on our neighbors.

As we plan our cluster, we imagine 22 smoking chimneys on four acres. (Our city folk, dreaming the country dream, are insistent on fireplaces; our country folk, having experienced the mess and the energy inefficiency, are pushing for an outright ban on fireplaces.) One of our members, who now has one dog and three cats, pictures with a shudder a neighborhood with 22 dogs and 66 cats.

We’re not going to be able to have all the pets we want, emit all the smoke we want, run chainsaws early on summer Sunday mornings. We’re going to have to be considerate of each other and of the wild creatures around us. For the sake of the 250 acres we will leave in field and forest, for the ability to walk to each others’ homes, for the savings of shared wells and roads (and tools and plows and mowers), we think these sacrifices are more than worthwhile. We’re not even sure they’re sacrifices, if in return they give us community, affordability, and the integrity of the open land.

In short, we think clustering is a good idea. We’re glad our town allows it. We wish it were easier.

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