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Homes a model of ecological design

By Stuart Leavenworth - Bee Staff Writer

Published Sunday, April 27, 2003

Twelve-lane freeways. Four-car garages. Strip malls, sports stadiums and cloverleaf interchanges.

When it comes to ecological footprints, California is Mr. Bigfoot. But some residents also have pioneered ways to live lighter on the land. Just ring the doorbell of Judy Corbett's house.


Walk inside the living room, and sun streams though overhead skylights. Turn on the faucet, and scalding water flows from a solar tank on the roof. Pick your breakfast from fruit trees outside. Drive to day care? Forget it. It's a block away.

Judy Corbett takes a stroll down one of many paths winding through Village Homes in Davis, the community she and her former husband, Michael Corbett, designed in the 1970s. A typical household there consumes 40 percent less energy than homes in nearby subdivisions.
Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

For a quarter century, the 240-dwelling Village Homes community in Davis has won international plaudits for its ecological design. Judy Corbett and her ex-husband, Michael Corbett, developed it during the oil crisis of the 1970s. Now it is one of Davis' most popular communities.

"Village Homes has demonstrated that development can work for people and the environment," said David Bainbridge, a former Davis planner who teaches at Alliant International University in San Diego. Village Homes, he says, is a unique mix of open space, compact development and energy-efficient design - features rarely rolled into a single subdivision.

Judy and Michael Corbett were young ecology students when, inspired by the garden cities of Britain, they became unlikely developers.

"I was in graduate school, and we would sit in class and hear about the destruction of species, all this stuff that hadn't hit the press yet," Judy Corbett recalls. "A lot of us said, 'We can't sit here and do nothing.' So we quit to go out and work in the world."

The Corbetts got lucky. A developer had been blocked from developing a 60-acre tomato field just west of Davis. With help from friends and Sacramento Savings and Loan, they purchased it for a bargain price in 1975: $6,000 an acre.

The couple then spent several years trying to persuade reluctant engineers and banks to endorse their unconventional project.

City engineers didn't like the Corbetts' proposed drainage system, which relied on the land's natural contours to drain stormwater into marshes, instead of on big pipes and culverts. The Federal Housing Administration objected to houses that weren't perpendicular to the curving streets, but instead were oriented to receive maximum sun exposure.

Despite that opposition, Village Homes was built, and now includes 220 houses, 20 apartments, 12 acres of greenbelts, 12 acres of communal gardens, offices, a community center, a restaurant and a near-Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Two decades after they were planted, the community orchards are so laden with fruit that residents complain of citrus overload. Kids play in parks far from any buzz of traffic.

According to a 1995 study, a typical Village Homes household consumes 40 percent less energy than homes in nearby subdivisions. Even outside, the summer temperatures are lower because there is less concrete.

Resale values are higher than elsewhere in Davis and "for sale" signs are rare. A 1,600-square-foot house usually sells for between $400,000 and $480,000, said Joan Stiles, a Davis real estate agent.

It is not utopia, Corbett readily admits. During a recent stroll, she grumbled about homeowners' habits of stuffing junk into their carports. If she could do it over again, Village Homes would include more storage space and the latest sustainable building materials, such as environmentally certified wood and newer solar technologies.

The Corbetts, however, have no immediate plans for Village Homes II. Across the country, similarly innovative developments have been blocked by zoning codes, resistant lenders and "not-in-my-back-yard" neighbors.

"The sad fact is, developers are making so much money building what they are building," said Michael Corbett, who runs the Village Homes restaurant. "Until people demand something different, nothing will change."

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