At Songaia, they pride themselves on living lightly on the land. So when a national homebuilder prepared last year to raze the woods on either side to make way for housing developments, a sense of dread rippled through their community of ecological ideals.
At first, they resisted. Before any foundations got poured, however, they decided to change their tune. Songaia residents are now striving for harmony with the more traditional suburbs taking shape next door.
“Overall, what has happened to Songaia has been pretty traumatic,” said resident Scott “Scotty” Buckley. “We have watched all these trees being ripped up. We have watched all this development that wasn’t sustainable and wasn’t in line with our values. That said, this is a story about adaptation. This is our attempt at positive adaptation and change.”
They’ve worked with the developer to save a few dozen trees and plan a landscaped buffer of edible plants, which they’re calling a “food forest.” They struck an agreement to give their members first crack at buying some of the new homes, before they hit the open market. They believe they have lined up at least three sets of buyers and would like to attract more.
What they have accomplished, Buckley and others say, could instruct other neighborhoods as they come to grips with the area’s rapid growth.
The name Songaia means “Song of the Earth.” About 50 residents live in 15 homes arranged around a commons. They tend a collective garden and consume the harvest at shared mealtimes.
Founding members bought the land in the 1980s. Most of the houses got built in 2000. Today, their way of life is a model within the cohousing movement, where people set out to build communities of like-minded neighbors. They’ve also grown into a teaching center for permaculture, a type of farming that strives to be self-sustaining.
After years of rural tranquility, rumblings of development began to approach the area beyond Bothell city limits.
As the regional economy roared, the appetite for housing grew. Along 39th Avenue Southeast, rural lots gave way to neighborhoods with names like Oakmont, Bellemont and Claremont.
Songaia, too, would get new neighbors: Crestmont Place.
Pacific Ridge Homes of Bothell planned to build the neighborhood of 25 homes on 4-plus acres on along Songaia’s northern border. Along the southern border, they planned Parkview Ridge, a 54-home development on 9.5 acres. The asking price for the least expensive homes is expected to start at just under $700,000.
Pacific Ridge was acquired by national homebuilder D.R. Horton in 2015.
Songaia lost a series of county land-use appeals last year, before reaching a settlement.
“Pacific Ridge was pleased to work with the Songaia community to address their concerns — including the installation of our first ever ‘food forest,’” said Marissa Awtry, a D.R. Horton spokeswoman. “We look forward to having Songaia as neighbors to our Crestmont Place and Parkview Ridge communities.”
From afar, Songaia now stands out as a patch of trees surrounded by construction sites and newly minted suburbs. Across a landscape of terraced dirt and fresh lots, a red house with solar panels peaks through a gap in the trees. A 30-foot-tall retaining wall at Parkview Ridge rises fortress-like near a yurt and an electric car charging station on Songaia property.
“That wall is something else,” said Nancy Lanphear, one of the community’s founding members. “This is just unreal.”
Along the other property line, Brian Bansenauer, president of Songaia’s condo association, stood next to a western red cedar they had worked with the developer to save.
“The crazy thing is that they would have cut it down, scraped off the topsoil, brought in new topsoil and, most likely, planted a sapling western red cedar,” Bansenauer said.
He looked forward to how the food forest might foster relations between Songaia and Crestmont Place.
“You have plums and figs and berries that people are going to be picking on the buffer,” Bansenauer said. “We see it as a real way to start conversations with those neighbors.”
Patrick Paul, an architect who lives in Songaia, predicted that families moving into the new homes would be drawn to their greenery.
“We’ve got goats and fruit trees and woods,” he said.
Buckley chimed in: “And we have open space … They don’t get that, they get a video-game room in each house.”
Since forging the agreement last year, interactions with the developer have been good.
“They’ve really gone the extra mile to do everything they said they would do,” Paul said.
Songaia offers up its experience to other existing neighborhoods where people worry about development: It helps to have a united voice and to strike up early conversations with the builder. Once residential zoning is in place, preventing development outright might be an unrealistic goal.
“They try to stop it at all costs, which is usually not going to happen,” Bansenauer said. “It’s how you integrate with the new development — that’s the important piece.”
To learn more about Songaia, go to songaia.com.