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Lopez Community Land Trust promotes sustainable living, affordable housing

May 14th, 2010 | Category: Community

by Stephanie Ashton

Picturesque San Juan County has long been a bastion of vacation homes and romantic getaways. Among the islands’ lovely farms and quaint shops, however, lives a resident population finding difficulty in maintaining a comfortable standard of living.
The Washington State University Center for Real Estate Research has found that within Washington State, it’s the residents of San Juan County who have the greatest disparity between household income and housing prices. Termed the “affordability crisis,” working families in San Juan County – who, on average, earn less than half of what could be expected in Seattle – must contend with housing prices that are the second highest, falling just short of King County’s top position, of any county in the State.
Rising up to relieve some of the pressure on working families is an alliance of community land trusts in San Juan County. Functioning by holding land in trust for the regions they serve, community land trusts remove parcels of land from speculative markets and allow for a much greater affordability for the homes and structures built on the land. Aside from the financial assistance Land Trusts provide, many – including the Lopez Community Land Trust – take a full-on leap into promoting sustainability alongside affordable housing.
The Lopez Community Land Trust has undertaken a wealth of programs and housing developments. Beginning with the Morgantown project in 1992, four independent housing projects integrating aspects of sustainability – including renewable energy sources – have been built on Lopez Island to accommodate lower-income families who otherwise couldn’t afford homeownership. Morgantown was, in fact, the first affordable housing project in the state of Washington, and encompasses seven homes on a one-acre site on the edge of Lopez Village.
According to Rhea Miller, Assistant Director of the Lopez Community Land Trust, volunteers’ efforts devoted to the project were invaluable. “There was so much community support during construction,” Miller said, “including a team of grandmothers who did shingling of the homes as far up as they could reach – they were great! We had a parent of a homeowner who volunteered to do all the electrical wiring, and a carpenter travelling through the islands on vacation [that] saw us, and stayed to help build.”
Miller said, “Our main goal is to create a sustainable community through affordable housing, sustainable agriculture and renewable energy and other rural development opportunities.”
Common Ground, LCLT’s latest housing development, completed in 2009 and offering 11 homes and 2 rental units, recently won the National Association of State Community Services Programs’ first prize in New Construction. The site incorporates rainwater catchment and solar hot water, among other efficiencies, but the LCLT isn’t resting on their laurels. When asked where the LCLT hopes to be in five years, Miller responds that a great many projects are being considered, “[including] more zero-net energy, affordable housing using the passive house design. We are collaborating with others on weatherization, conservation, and renewable energy initiatives, not only for homes, businesses and cars but also to off-set the energy use demanded by electric vehicles.”
This focus on sustainability is only one aspect of LCLT’s dynamic planning. Offering an array of educational programs promoting land stewardship and the development of small-scale agricultural infrastructure on Lopez Island, LCLT is able to extend its vision and benefit the community through its Sustainable Agriculture & Rural Development (SARD) programs. The SARD programs range in scope but focus on, in Miller’s words, “a variety of issues that all lead toward healthy, sustainable communities.” One such project was the creation of a Mobile Processing Unit for locally-raised meat products. A truck and trailer owned by the LCLT and operated by the Island Grown Farmers Co-op travels among farms to process the harvested meat. The Lopez MPU was the first ever to be sanctioned by the US Department of Agriculture, giving local farmers the opportunity to sell USDA-approved meat products in local stores. “This project was a great boon for area farmers,” says Miller, who notes that the MPU now serves a five-county region.
Miller shares that an LCLT intern summed his volunteer experience up by saying, “When I came to Lopez, I wanted to be an architect of buildings. After I left Lopez, I wanted to be an architect of community.”
With over 200 members, the LCLT fills a niche both on Lopez Island and off, and community involvement is absolutely key. With more and more community land trusts forming around the country, the opportunities to assist in sustainable, affordable development are varied, exciting and, quite possibly, right next door.
For more information about LCLT visit

Stephanie Ashton lives in Bellingham. She enjoys studying up on the wealth of local food and sustainability issues.


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