It may be helpful to anyone interested in becoming a member of Ecovillage New Jersey to get a brief sense of the group’s history, current status, and intended future.
Over the past few years, two key groups became interested in creating a network of ecovillages in New Jersey and/or Eastern Pennsylvania.
- Steve Welzer, the founder of the EcovillageNJ Meetup group, had been working to create an ecovillage at Delane Lipka’s Mt. Eden Retreat.
- Following Delane’s unexpected death, and because Delane’s heirs were not supportive of the project, the Mt. Eden site was no longer feasible.
- However, Steve continued to host Meetups.
- Victoria Zelin and Jonathan Cloud, founders of the Center for Regenerative Community Solutions (CRCS), had been working with a group in the New Hope, PA area from about 2012 through 2014. The group consciously stopped meeting after an off-site weekend retreat, where members realized that one issue could not be reconciled:
- Some people wanted the group to focus on Ecology, and not require any participation in spirituality;
- Others wanted the group to share spiritual values and practices as its primary concern, with sustainability as a secondary purpose.
In 2015, after each of these efforts fell through, Victoria and Jonathan joined Steve in a renewed effort to start one or more ecovillages in New Jersey. In 2016, a group of people from South Jersey got together to plan their own ecovillage, and created their own Meetup group; Steve usually attends the South Jersey EcoVillage meetings, as well.
At several Meetups, Ecovillage participants were given the opportunity to share the leadership of the group, as a “Core Team.” Several people volunteered. In the beginning there was a team of about 10 people, however, during our most intense work, 5 people could regularly make time for calls, meetings and emails:
- Karyn Jorgenson (realtor, social worker, and parent to three grown children with Special Needs)
- Frances Schultz, a LSRP (licensed site remediation professional—environmental, and President of her Condominium Association in Little Falls)
- Steve Welzer (EcovillageNJ originator, Jill Stein for President (Treasurer), former IT professional)
- Jonathan Cloud (entrepreneur, web developer, former real estate developer and solar builder, cofounder of CRCS)
- Victoria Zelin (business development professional, sustainability, organizational development, cofounder of CRCS)
As they were available, Larry White took on organizing the “Salon” or presentation part of meetings, and Mara Farmer volunteered to arrange logistics for the Meetups.
Steve shared his desire to find a 501(c)(3) fiscal sponsor, so that donations could be tax- deductible and he would not have to go through the expensive, time-consuming job of getting non-profit status for the EcovillageNJ Meetup. After investigating several models of fiscal sponsorship, through CRCS as well as through other non-profits, Steve requested that CRCS take on the management of the group’s finances. CRCS agreed to create a new sub- account with Affinity Federal Credit Union to keep the funds separate from CRCS’s other operations.
In exchange for CRCS doing the bookkeeping, issuing tax receipts, paying for an accountant (and eventually an auditor) and taking responsibility for all of the group’s obligations, CRCS is entitled to a 5% fee. (This is a low fee for nonprofit fiscal sponsorship, which can be up to twice that amount.) Both Steve and Jonathan have to sign off on expenses.
EcoVillage NJ Efforts to Date
Last year, it was the consensus that it would be difficult to raise money for an Ecovillage project without having a specific parcel of land to show potential unit-owners and investors. So we began to look for a suitable property.
The Andover property was one of the first (if not the first) shown to us by Karyn Jorgensen, our realtor, who scoured the state for properties that were (a) in desirable locations (b) suitably zoned, or capable of being rezoned and (c) economically viable and affordable for a group such as ours.
The majority of this effort was expended by Steve, Jonathan, Victoria, Karyn and Fran, and involved an extensive amount of driving all over the state, the economic cost of which has been borne entirely by the individuals involved.
In April of this year it became clear that the Andover property owners were not interested in a no-money-down deal, even if it promised to pay out the sellers’ full (and to some, excessive) asking price, stage by stage. So the negotiations were suspended, and subsequent efforts to identify other properties also proved fruitless in the absence of the required equity capital. The Andover property remains available, however, and our intention is to revisit the possibility of this location at some point in the future, should our circumstances change.
After some discussion, it was agreed that the group would continue its monthly potlucks mainly as a series of educational “salons,” until such time as a new opportunity emerged.
A Proposed New Direction: Ecovillagers Cooperative
Meanwhile, Steve had reached out to Katie McCamant, the architect who along with her partner Charles Durrett is mainly responsible for bringing the idea of cohousing to the US from Denmark in the 1980s. Katie had announced, last year, a program to train a series of ecovillage enthusiasts in an effort to foster the development of 500 ecovillages or cohousing communities across the U.S.
After the first program concluded we were referred to Joel Rothschild, an associate as well as a student of McCamant’s, who had established a rental ecovillage in Seattle which lasted for a few years, as well as being involved in several Ecovillage projects. Joel was in the process of moving from Washington, D.C. to Lancaster, PA.
Joel represents an “Ecovillagers Alliance” of a dozen experts and experienced professionals who have developed a new cooperative model for ecovillage development. After a very exciting small meeting with Joel in Lancaster, PA, in June, we invited him to present the concept to our members in July, and then again in August. The presentations were well received.
The Ecovillagers Cooperative model represents a major change in the thinking and direction of the group, which had previously been that we needed to have a property in mind in order to attract potential residents. Instead, the Ecovillagers Alliance seeks to build an organization, based on economic cooperation, education, and Sociocracy, before encouraging and assisting local groups in selecting enterprises or neighborhoods to develop into ecovillages. It favors urban brownfields revitalization rather than rural, “greenfield” development; and supports local groups in developing multiple revenue sources from businesses integrated with the Ecovillage and larger community. The Ecovillagers Cooperative is itself a Real Estate Investment Cooperative that plans to develop eco-communities in the mid-Atlantic region, and to generate returns for its members based on the acquisition and development of properties using this model.
The Core Team has generally reacted favorably toward this new approach, and will help to present it to the membership in the September Meetup. Several of us are already committed to joining the Ecovillagers Cooperative (currently scheduled to be established in January), and working to create a strong New Jersey contingent as part of this organization.
The EcovillageNJ Meetup has succeeded in putting on some interesting programs, and educating ourselves. But we have not, so far, created an organic community movement that is growing and taking on more responsibility for changing the way we all live. The cooperative model, if it succeeds, will help to accomplish this. Each of us will commit a definite amount of funds, time, and effort to the EVC, and its role will be to create a roadmap for all of us together, with all of the knowledge and resources of the Alliance, to create conscious communities where we want to live. Each member of the Cooperative will also become a member of one or more teams, which will study the relevant aspects of the Cooperative and plan the development of its various elements. As Steve has put it, in lining up our September 11 meeting:
The idea will be for the groups to become self-initiating centers of inquiry over the next two months. What aspect of the ecovillage concept most intrigues you? Senior cohousing? Community horticulture? Moving your own neighborhood in an eco- communitarian direction? Or a specific proposition for an urban project in Hudson County, commutable to NYC? After we see where there’s a critical mass of interest we’ll assign the groups to study and brainstorm together toward reporting back to our November gathering.
From EVC’s perspective, it’s important that Co-op members be fully educated about what works and what doesn’t in creating an ecovillage community, and in working cooperatively, before jumping into this new model.
So it’s important to realize what’s really happening here, and make sure people know what they are getting themselves into. This is not simply a way of erecting the physical buildings of a village and then moving into it; it’s more importantly (a) a willingness to start playing an active role in creating the kinds of communities we want live in; (b) a commitment of time and money to the group; and (c) operating as members who are studying to have a functional and decision-making role in the total operation of the Cooperative.
Ecovillagers Alliance will be hosting a conference in the new year, and will be “incubating” local groups into successful ecovillagers, using Sociocracy as the form of governance.
The Center for Regenerative Community Solutions (CRCS) and EcoVillage NJ
Joining such a cooperative, and playing a role in its regional operation, including the eventual development of sub-cooperatives in various parts of New Jersey, is also very much in line with the core mission of CRCS, which is to promote greater economic and ecological resiliency on a community-by-community basis.
If we want to make our communities more resilient and ecological, we must also work to make them more economically and socially just, and more prosperous as well. Cooperatives are not new, but deploying them in this way creates a new collaborative business and community model, which is what’s needed to transition our communities to more sustainable ones. The Ecovillagers Cooperative is putting economic democracy to work in our own lives.
CRCS’s focus has been and continues to be on the alternative economic and financial models that are needed to foster stronger local communities. Other CRCS projects include NJPACE (New Jersey Property Assessed Clean Energy), DREAM (Deed-restricted Resilience and Energy Affordability Measures) and Global4C, a Complementary Currency for Climate Change — and while there’s no room to discuss these here, we invite you to view our websites and Jonathan and Victoria’s bios at: CRCSolutions.org, NewJerseyPACE.org, and Global4C.org.
For the time being, CRCS will continue playing the role of fiscal sponsor for at least the New Jersey Chapter of the Ecovillagers Cooperative, until such time as the organization develops its own mechanisms of financial control; and will continue to support the Meetup as a clearinghouse for new interested members and potential investors. We invite others to join this effort “on the ground,” seeking to provide a functioning structure for local members. But as soon as EVC can manage its own finances it should so, because it’s not a nonprofit. CRCS will focus on the social and educational support of the NJ Chapter and contingent.
For the latest update, see Taking a New Direction, posted right after our September meeting.