CLUSTERING -- GOOD IDEA, HARD TO DO
"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
In some towns around me zoning is still hotly denounced and regularly
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
freedom almost as insidious as regulating their use of lethal weapons. On
other hand, it isn't immediately obvious from looking at zoned towns that
look or perform better than unzoned ones. Zoning doesn't appear to be
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
come at the expense of another. I should be able to do what I want on my
but not in a way that pollutes your water or blights your view or reduces
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.
Most zoning plans are too weak to assure that essential fairness. They
enormous growth. Water does get polluted; taxes do go up. And zoning
encourages wasteful settlement patterns, especially when it requires large
The minimum two-acre or five-acre or ten-acre lot is written into town
for a number of virtuous reasons. It provides room to separate septic
from wells. It separates neighbors, so they're less likely to annoy each
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
huge expanse of lawn maintained by a droning two-stroke mower. It's hard
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,
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
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
sense to cluster those houses on, say, ten acres, leaving 90 acres open for
farming, forestry, recreation, wildlife, the cleansing of air and water,
recharge of aquifers, quiet, beauty. The houses are easier to build and
service that way. Roads, power lines, water systems can be shared. The
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
various encumbrances against further development. If a simple covenant
protects it for a limited time only, then cluster zoning is just an
to eventual dense development. A conservation easement, signing
rights over to an independent entity such as a land trust, protects the
land in perpetuity.
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
First of all regulations are designed, for good reason, to put extra
on denser, multi-unit developments. The cluster of 22 homes I'm involved
(on four acres, leaving 250 acres open) has to jump through regulatory
would never encounter if we spread out on ten acres apiece, drilled 22
wells and installed 22 septic tanks. Sharing our water systems, power
and driveways will save us and our town money in the long run, but in the
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
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,
holes, play loud music, use smelly solvents, keep cats, dogs, horses.
Clustering forces us to think about the effects of our actions on our
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
folk, having experienced the mess and the energy inefficiency, are pushing
an outright ban on fireplaces.) One of our members, who now has one dog
three cats, pictures with a shudder a neighborhood with 22 dogs and 66
We're not going to be able to have all the pets we want, to emit all the
we want, to run chainsaws early on summer Sunday mornings. We're going to
to be considerate of each other and of the wild creatures around us. For
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
community, affordability, and the integrity of the open land.
In short, we think clustering is a good idea. We're glad our town allows
We wish it were easier.
(Donella H. Meadows is director of the Sustainability Institute and an
professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.)