Clearwater Commons built for family and environment

BOTHELL — When Tom Campbell and Stephanie Sarantos sought out the ideal neighborhood for their family, what they wanted was typical for parents moving to the ‘burbs.

Good schools for their children, fresh air and friendly neighbors topped their list of priorities.

How the husband and wife set about reaching those goals was anything but typical — they joined with like-minded families to build their own neighborhood from scratch. Along the way, they pushed the bounds of environmentally sustainable development.

After years of permit applications and financial tussles, they’re finally seeing their community take shape.

“To me, it’s highly gratifying to see kids playing out here and see them walk to school,” Campbell said. “The vision that we had over six years ago is coming true.”

The result is Clearwater Commons, an emerging neighborhood of 16 homes, five of them already built. Snohomish County planning officials consider it the first residential development in the county to use a full suite of low-impact development techniques.

Getting there hasn’t been easy. It’s required time, money and plenty of sweat.

Along the way, do-it-yourself idealism has run smack dab into financial realities. One challenge has been getting financing as a condominium, rather than for individual homes.

“You have to have good equity to do this,” said Campbell, 57, a consultant who works in the areas of land use and participatory government. “You’re putting in your own commitment, your own money, your own skin.”

An abundance of trees and nearby North Creek give Clearwater Commons an almost rural feel, even though the bustling Bothell-Everett Highway lies just two blocks away.

Campbell and Sarantos, who have three children, ages 11 to 23, have lived on the property since 2008 in an existing Craftsman-style house they remodeled. Like the other families that arrived this spring, they came from Seattle.

The idea to build the neighborhood came up in 2006 after the private Clearwater School, which Sarantos founded, moved to an adjacent property along North Creek. The school has up to 60 students, and children take a leading role in designing their curriculum.

Campbell spotted the seven-acre property to the north, originally platted as a conventional suburban neighborhood.

The other families who would join them in creating the neighborhood had ties to the school, whose environmental and democratic ideals helped guide the nascent community.

Candace Pidcock, a social worker with grown children, appreciates the ties she’s forged during the short time in her new duplex home.

“I like that there are spontaneous potlucks and work parties and drumming around the campfire,” Pidcock said.

There are drawbacks compared with the house she left in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood. There, she could walk in any direction and have access to buses around the clock.

“Here, it’s very car-dependent,” she said.

Residents are eager to show personal touches inside their homes.

Bob Freeman and Shawna Lee, both 54, have a kitchen floor made of cork. The material is considered environmentally sustainable and has the benefit of feeling warm and spongy underfoot. A friend helped them fashion a staircase from elm wood harvested in Ferndale.

Nearly every step in the building process has involved a financial trade-off for this couple and others.

“Green is expensive,” said Freeman, a software developer who is branching out into video production. “You have to make value judgements about where to put the money because you can’t afford all of it.”

The community was forced to abandon standard features such as “green” roofs and solar panels as too costly, though all homes are designed to make those additions easy if the owners want them.

The expense of custom-building homes with recycled and super-efficient materials adds up as well. Houses in Clearwater Commons run upwards of $400,000. To trim costs, Lee painted her house while her husband did the wiring.

At another home, Eric Dolven, 44, walked barefoot over mahogany and madrona wood flooring he found in the region and installed himself.

“I like wood. I like the feeling of wood under my feet,” said Dolven, whose job involves running climate simulations on supercomputers.

Dolven also had his trade-offs, such as concluding it would be impractical to find recycled or reclaimed wood for his deck.

All the new homes in Clearwater Commons appear to hover a few feet off the ground because of pin-pile foundations that allow water to flow underneath, one of the reasons this neighborhood has no detention ponds.

Another feature that helps minimize water runoff is cluster parking at one end of the property, rather than having driveways and garages for each house. The road through the neighborhood mainly is for pedestrian traffic.

Obtaining government permits for the work has been the biggest headache so far, Campbell said. That’s taken three years and accounts for two-thirds of the budget so far.

Work with the county, however, should make things easier for other people who want to follow their example, county land-use manager Tom Rowe said.

Some building techniques, though uncommon now, are expected to soon become standard. The pervious pavement that Clearwater Commons uses for its parking lot will be required for driveways in the county after 2014, Rowe said.

Beyond pushing the limits of low-impact development, Clearwater Commons also is an example of a small, but growing trend referred to as cohousing or intentional housing. The lifestyle choice involves a group of people taking a leading role in designing and running their own neighborhoods.

“This is really the new old traditional neighborhood. This is how our great-grandparents lived,” said Rebecca Lane, the Seattle-based executive director of the nonprofit Cohousing Association of the United States.

The Puget Sound area is considered one of the hotbeds of the movement, along with California’s San Francisco Bay Area, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Colorado.

Clearwater Commons is one of three cohousing neighborhoods in Snohomish County along with Songaia, near Bothell, and Sharingwood, in the Maltby area. There are 14 such neighborhoods established between Bellingham and Olympia, said Craig Ragland, a Songaia resident who previously served as the Cohousing Association’s executive director.

At Clearwater, residents share goals of sustainable living and rearing children in a healthy environment. When conflicts arise between neighbors, as did over the what color to paint a house, people try to talk things through and reach a consensus. If that doesn’t work, they plan to decide with a majority vote.

There are common values and interests, but no requirement to live a particular lifestyle. Passions run the gamut from artistic to athletic, including filmmaking, woodworking and soccer.

“We are extremely non-dogmatic,” Sarantos said. “We don’t want an agenda to define our community.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465;

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