Robert Scaramuccia ’19 reports in our inaugural episode of “Talk in the Town”:
Norman Pattis has seen the future for the rural town of Bethany, and it’s grim.
“Connecticut lost a town last night, but it did not lose either territory or population,” Pattis writes in a blog post dated April 16, 2024. “Two suburban entities simply merged into a new, larger, town: New Hamden.”
Pattis’s doomsday scenario is the merging of Hamden with Bethany, a small town 20 minutes from downtown New Haven with just over 5,500 residents, dozens of farms, a school bus depot and little else. According to Pattis, Bethany will soon look like any other Connecticut suburb, its “rural character” replaced with rows and rows of lookalike condominiums. The first step on this path to suburban obsolescence? “A community of geriatric do-gooders dancing around a Maypole” who plan on invading Bethany “in the name of peace, love, granola and good feeling for all.”
Charlotte Hitchcock doesn’t look like she’s ready to invade anything. She’s a semiretired architectural historian with two border collies, a middle-aged Subaru hatchback and a desire for a house that’s “so snug that you can heat it with a tea kettle.” Hitchcock is a typical member of Green Haven, the organization Pattis thinks will devastate Bethany. Founded 10 years ago, Green Haven’s goal is to create Connecticut’s first cohousing community. This November, it hopes to start construction on a 33-acre site that is currently home to a dairy farm.
A few architects brought cohousing from Denmark to the United States back in the 1980s. Cohousing’s form — a bunch of privately owned, relatively small houses clustered around a massive common house — is meant to encourage a close-knit community, following the thinking that, in fact, fences do not make good neighbors. Green Haven’s development, named Rocky Corner, will consist of 30 homes and a common house built on a couple acres at the corner of the farm, leaving the rest as open space. Thirteen of those homes will be affordable according to the state’s standards, significantly increasing Bethany’s stock.
“I look forward to doing the morning dog walk,” Hitchcock said. “Maybe with a couple other people, having a little dog play group, getting some exercise in the morning and then going and having breakfast. Then getting down to work, hopefully before noon.”
The 320 people who showed up to a public hearing of Bethany’s Planning and Zoning Commission in April 2013 weren’t there to join Hitchcock’s dog walking club. Six percent of Bethany’s population attended — the equivalent of 7,000 New Haven residents cramming into a school board meeting. That many people don’t come to a zoning meeting unless they’re upset about something.
“It was surprising to a lot of people about how many people showed up, and out of those, how many were basically in opposition,” David Berto, Green Haven’s development consultant, said. What they opposed was an amendment to the town’s zoning regulations allowing Green Haven to build its homes so closely together. For Green Haven, this meant cozy community and preserved open space; for Bethany residents like Pattis, it looked like a precursor to condominiums popping up all over town, or, as he put it, “a suicide pact with suburbanization.”
By the time Green Haven won its zoning battle a year later, it had convinced many in Bethany that Rocky Corner might benefit the town, or at least wouldn’t obliterate it. Yet that fight had cost the zoning commission’s Democratic members their seats, while the town’s first selectman, who’d supported Rocky Corner’s promotion of diversity, had won re-election by a margin of only 25 votes.
Why have a bunch of retirees from the greater New Haven area given up suburban homes for smaller dwellings out in the country even after facing such heavy resistance? Is knowing your neighbor worth 10 years of convincing local residents, state officials and banks that cohousing isn’t just a hippie commune? Will Rocky Corner be a refuge for New Haven’s old and environmentally inclined population, another step in the inexorable urbanization of the region, or the solution to Connecticut’s affordable housing shortage? Listen to our inaugural podcast to find out more!