Peterborough to evict 25 Eco Village tenants over safety concerns


Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Published: 12-14-2020 12:48 PM

The Town of Peterborough has ordered the 25 tenants and residents of the Walden Eco Village to vacate their residences by Wednesday after finding fire code violations during an inspection of the property last Thursday. The Eco Village, at 36-54 Garland Way in Peterborough, is comprised of 16 buildings, with 14 cottages and tiny houses serving as rental units. “Although formal inspections have not been conducted, it was evident during today’s visit that there are significant code violations that place the structures and their occupants at immediate risk,” Code Enforcement Officer Timothy Herlihy wrote to landlord Akhil Garland, who represents the Garland Family Realty Trust, which owns the property. Garland must cease and desist activity on the site and provide the tenants with alternate housing from Wednesday at 4 p.m. until the structures are properly permitted, according to the order.

Tenants learned about the order along with Garland on Friday afternoon. Special education teachers Griffin and Elanie Kelley, Well School teacher Bill O’Mahony and his wife, physician assistant Michelle O’Mahony, and acupuncturist Amy Wilson are all residents in the larger cottages on site without any idea where they’ll go after Wednesday.

“How?” Michelle O’Mahony asked simply, when considering Garland or the town finding alternate housing for her family and other residents. The porch of the cottage she’s lived in for five and a half years with her husband and a teenage son was stacked with moving boxes on Sunday.

Michelle’s job precludes them moving into any sort of shared space due to COVID-19 precautions, even though they have family members with rooms available, and their cat and dog eliminates many hotel room options. If they stay in place and the town shuts off power to the cottage, their son can’t attend his online classes, Bill said.

Neither of the Kelleys have family able to accommodate them, Griffin said. Although he can work remotely and therefore stay farther away from town, other residents don’t have that option, he said.

“There’s really no place to go,” Wilson said, as both her and her husband’s jobs in the healthcare field also rule out shared accommodations. She has no family in the area and is soliciting friends and her church for rental opportunities. “There’s zero,” she said, no housing opportunities and definitely nothing affordable.

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The Walden Eco Village has existed as such for about 12 years, residents said. Originally, seven cottages were constructed and permitted for use as temporary residences for Well School staff, Fire Chief Ed Walker said. They were approved to receive heat and hot water from a central boiler building, but none had gas or electricity, save for battery-powered emergency lights at the time of approval, he said. Over the years, all save for one has been wired with electricity (the other one has its own solar array) and all have installed some gas appliances, he said. In addition, a number of “casitas,” as Garland refers to them, 140 square foot tiny houses, have been built and wired with electricity and gas for heat or camp stoves, Walker said – all without permits.

In addition to the fire code violations prompting an immediate shutdown, the Eco Village is not compliant with town zoning or planning code for yearround residential units, Walker said.

Tenants without full bathroom and kitchen setups in their own dwellings access a community building that houses a group kitchen, featuring a six burner gas range and oven, a bathroom and shower, and two washer and dryer sets that all residents use on a schedule. Casitas rent for $445 a month including some electricity, and cottages from $900 to $1,400 a month depending on whether they’re studio, one, two, or three bedrooms, Garland said.

“The idea that it’s somehow subpar living up here, that’s just not the case,” Kelley said. The Kelley’s cottage has a bathroom, a loft, and a kitchenette, with radiant floor heating powered by the communal wood boiler. They use the oven and the washer and dryer across the green in the community building, he said. “Sure, I have to wear a mask when I put my banana bread in the oven,” he said, but he sees the shared resources as a feature, a slight pushback on what he sees as heavy widespread consumer culture.

Wilson and her husband built their cottage in 2008, and for 12 years have lived in it the same way as when it received a certificate of occupancy from the town. “We’re not hurting for anything,” she said, describing the village as a “model of sustainability.” Her house runs on solar power and they live without a refrigerator, she said. Wilson said the village has had zero incidents in the past 12 years, and no fire or ambulance calls. “We’re a really healthy community,” she said. Other community members have approached her, curious about what “happens” up in the village, she said, but there’s no real mystery. “When we moved up here it was all about affordable housing and lifestyle,” she said, and an opportunity to raise a son in a community where he’d have an incredible childhood.

The residents and Garland say they find it hard to believe the town wasn’t aware of what was happening on site. Residents register their cars, vote, and receive mail using their Garland Way address as their permanent residence, Kelley said. Census Bureau representatives have visited, and Fire Department staff has come up to number houses for 911 response, Wilson said.

The town knew there were people living in the cottages, Walker and Deputy Town Administrator Nicole MacStay said, but assumed the buildings were being occupied as they were permitted to be. The inspection was prompted by Garland’s proposal to subdivide and expand the Eco Village, as heard by the Planning Board in July. Town staff conducted a walk-through of the property around Thanksgiving, at which point they noticed the casitas had been hooked up to electric and propane, MacStay said. Thursday was the first opportunity the town’s building inspector and fire inspector had to enter the buildings. “They followed procedure, they tried to get in as soon as they could,” MacStay said. “The installations did not appear to meet code,” she said, and there was no evidence the gas and electric had been installed by a licensed professional. “The fire hazards there are incredibly real,” she said.

“Unfortunately, this is the mechanism available to us,” MacStay said of the cease-and-desist order and evacuation of tenants. “It’s horrible timing,” she said, but that the town’s response would have been the same regardless of when they would have inspected the buildings. Although the inspection found “immediately dangerous” conditions, Walker, MacStay, and Herlihy decided to give residents four to five days to evacuate, but were uncomfortable extending the window anywhere beyond that, Walker said. “It’s a calculated risk,” he said, given that the conditions may have been in place for years without incident.

When asked whether there was any way to remediate just the safety issues and let residents stay in place, MacStay said the first step would be to sit down with Garland and discuss the specific issues with each building, and that the town would lock out power and gas to the residences on Wednesday.

The town’s intent to shut off certain services concerned some cottage residents beyond the impending eviction. “If the town… shuts down the power and boiler, all these floors are gonna freeze,” Wilson said. “If the floor breaks, it’s all gone,” she said, none of the cottages hooked up to the boiler would be inhabitable by any standard. The Kelleys echoed the concern. Although they planned to leave on Wednesday with just the essentials in hopes of an eventual return to their cottage, “the place is totally done,” if the floor is allowed to crack, they said.

“It just feels that Peterborough has no concern or remorse for the collateral damage,” Griffin Kelley said, and urged the town to look beyond the list of regulations and have a human conversation about the impact on tenants. “It’s nonsensical that the town’s looking out for our safety by pushing us away,” he said.

The O’Mahonys intend to help find and implement solutions for the Eco Village, but said they were frustrated that they weren’t able to start the process until business hours resumed on Monday. “And everyone works,” Michelle said of the affected residents. She can only put so much effort towards pursuing a lawyer or visiting the Town House between breaks at work, she said. “Who’s backing us up? Who’s gonna represent us? It just makes me so upset,” she said, and that the tenants stand to lose the most in what she and her husband see as a dispute between the town and Garland.

Beyond the immediate situation, residents said they wanted the town to recognize the Eco Village as a viable affordable housing solution.

“This is the only place I could afford to live,” Kelley said. “If it wasn’t for Walden Eco Village, I wouldn’t be able to be a teacher right now,” he said. The Kelleys moved in at the start of 2018 after responding to a Craigslist ad, and their living situation has allowed them to start saving, he said, something that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

The Eco Village houses middle-class professionals, Kelley and Wilson said, including teachers, the town’s library director, a carpenter, metal artists, professional musicians, healthcare and assisted living workers, small business employees, and seven children. Some residents have moved to the Eco Village after getting divorced, or living in a car, or graduating college, Wilson said. They’ve even had high school students who wanted to stay in the area after their parents moved out of town.

Wilson said she believes that, in order for affordable housing to exist in Peterborough, the town has to imagine a different way of living, and that there are people who are willing to live that way. People want tiny houses, but Peterborough has never figured out a way to legislate them, she said. The Eco Village is a model for how to incorporate them into a community, she said. “We’re changing peoples’ lives up here,” she said, and that’s the important takeaway, although she said the village could have developed in a different order, and permitting could have come first. “Do I wish things had been to code? Yes,” she said, but that she would have said something if she felt at risk. “We’re clearly not living in danger here,” she said.

MacStay also serves as Peterborough’s Welfare Director, and said she would be providing a list of resources and contacts for residents on Monday. “We will make sure that everyone has somewhere for them to go, a warm, safe place for them to sleep at night,” she said. “This is not ideal in any way,” she said, describing it as one of the hardest things she’s had to do in her career with the town. When asked about the recourse for residents, who are currently bearing the brunt of the consequences, MacStay said they needed to direct those questions to their landlord. “Their landlord is responsible. He is the responsible party here,” she said, and that many if not all of the residents entered rental agreements in good faith.

“If this is really about safety, I question their decision,” Garland said on Sunday. “There is nothing in my opinion that is unsafe, even if it’s not to code,” he said, and that his immediate concern was for the residents and their plight. “I’m gonna fight for the tenants here, that’s my role,” he said.

As of Monday, residents were demonstrating outside the Town House and the Eco Village subdivision proposal is on the Planning Board’s docket for Monday evening, with the situation also scheduled for Tuesday night’s Select Board meeting.