Spring has truly sprung here in Lake County (the NYTimes is reporting that spring is coming around three weeks early across the country as a result of overal warming trends). After the generous rainy season, the landscape is blooming, and the greenery is beginning to overgrow the fire scarred landscapes.
It has been three months since we last wrote to you about the project to build a new "Bright Village" on the site of a community destroyed by last year's catastrophic Valley Fire here in Lake County California.
The Valley Fire at the borders of the Mountain Of Attention
As we have written, a seemingly irresistible surge to literally rise from the ash heaps of the fire is manifesting in the cooperative efforts of a group of friends to create a truly "Bright Village" that exemplifies every best vision of cooperation - with each other, with our neighbors, with the earth and all the beings with whom we share this place, and ultimately with the living Spirit of All that Is the deep prior unity of All.
The Valley Fire - We are located in the northern "spur" of the burn area
We are now deep into the thicket of the planning process, wrestling week by week with a hundred details of finance, construction methods, real estate transactions and county procedures, not to mention the actual design of a 40-person village, community center, meditation hall, gardens, and parkland. As you will see, we are being helped by a powerful cadre of angels who have also been inspired by the project. Here are some of the milestones we have passed since the fall:
1. Establishment of the legal cooperative structure - the Bright Village LLC. With heavyweight assistance from our dauntless attorney Jill Jacobs (a fellow at the Sustainable Economies Law Center in Oakland) we have carefully crafted a legal structure that looks, feels and acts like a cooperative, but is legally a limited liability company (avoiding some of the tax constraints of a legal coop). We have completed an extensive (25-pages of fine print) Operating Agreement and are deeply engaged in drafting an accompanying Governance Document that outlines exactly HOW this LLC will function as a coop (see below).
As of this writing we have enrolled 22 members into the LLC, all with real cash skin in the game. This group has met as a Plenary gathering (gathering of all members) twice thus far. Once someone is accepted as a member of the company, and as the spaces are constructed and become available, the opportunity to own or rent will be determined on the basis of the date of the member’s initial contribution and the number of units constructed.
The majority of company members are local Lake County folks, many of whom lost their homes in the fire. All of us have an active relationship with the Mountain Of Attention retreat center across the road from the Village site. Like us, most of our members have landed in some semi-permanent interim housing until the village is built. In addition we have a contingent who currently live and serve at the Adidam hermitage sanctuary in Fiji and who are looking to provide for the time they can no longer live and work in that demanding environment. We also have a few other members scattered around North America. Thanks to Skype, we have all been able to be "in the room" together for our Plenary gatherings.
We have formalized a contractual Management Services agreement between the Bright Village LLC and the Seigler Springs Community Redevelopment Association (SSCRA) to provide day to day management of the village development process. SSCRA is the nonprofit company that we established in the weeks following the fire to provide immediate and ongoing fire relief services to the community, and to help establish cooperative forms of redevelopment in the fire-affected area.
contour map of the project site
2. Helping Fire Survivors who are still struggling. In a related development, we have just learned that SSCRA has been awarded a grant by the American Red Cross to provide dedicated "disaster case management" to survivors of the Valley Fire. Having pointed dozens of fellow survivors to resources for housing, clothing, furniture and other household goods, mental health counseling, financial assistance, we are very happy to be able to hire one additional staff person who will directly serve those fire survivors who are still struggling to get back on their feet 18 months later. There are still so many folks in that situation. We particularly need resources for artists, musicians, and tradespeople who lost their tools and equipment as well as their homes.
We have been advised that the severity of the Valley Fire was comparable in effect to Hurricane Katrina on a smaller scale and that it would be literally many years before the community truly regains its footing. With the support of the Red Cross we have hired Indigo Perry, herself a Valley Fire survivor, to work directly with individuals who are still not settling into a new stable post-fire circumstance. Indigo is an experienced social services professional, most recently working on homelessness in neighboring Sonoma County. She is also a member of the Bright Village LLC and a dear friend, so we are looking for multiple synergies to emerge as we work together.
3. Cobb Area Council (CAC) and new Cobb Area Plan - speaking of synergies, this month we will hold the tenth meeting of the CAC. The Council was established in July by the Lake County Board of Supervisors to be the local community advisory body. Magdalena did much of the behind the scenes organizing of CAC and Eliot was appointed Chair of the five-member Board. Via the CAC we have been deeply involved in the progress of the larger Cobb community in post-fire redevelopment, including a community "rebuild workshop", advocating for renovation of the Cobb "Little Red Schoolhouse" as a community center, bringing county officials to the community to discuss recovery efforts, and cooperating to prepare for the coming fire season. Perhaps most significantly, the CAC will be central in the revision of the "Cobb Mountain Area Plan" last revised in 1989, that will lay out the fundamental ground rules for redevelopment in the area. Recovery from the fire will be one of the major themes of the plan and this will be a way for us to stay very close to the thinking of the county officials whose approval will be critical for the success of the Bright Village project. The CAC has also, even principally, been a means for us to grow and nurture the web of connections between our Adidam community and the larger Cobb Mountain, and broader Lake County community. We average anywhere from 50-70 attendees at every meeting. We have been making LOTS of new friends and are really enjoying discovering what a wonderful group of neighbors we have.
Cobb Area Council Website
4. Refining the Bright Village mix of "market rate" and "affordable" housing, housing and seniors. Our target for Bright Village residents is 40 people. We expect that this will be split half and half between folks who will own their units and those who will rent. We also expect that half of the village will technically qualify for "low income" housing- meaning residents earning less than 80% of the Lake County median income. This may help us qualify for some advantageous financing for the Village. We are extremely fortunate to have two veteran affordable housing developers on our advisory team. Clark Blasdell, Chairman of Northbay Family Homes, with 40 years in the home development world and dozens of successful projects, has been holding our hand from the first days after the fire and guiding us as we learn the ropes. As part of the great serendipity surrounding the Bright Village project, we met Cobb neighbor John Carlisi a few months ago through the new Cobb Area Council. John has a deep background with the Fannie Mae Foundation and is currently the CEO of the Neighborhood Development Collaborative, an affordable home builder active in several states across the country with over 4,000 homes to their credit. John has energetically jumped into helping us craft our financial plan and is currently introducing us to the world of "Community Development Financial Institutions," which have been established to provide credit and financial services to underserved markets (like Lake County).
5. Are we going to be an old folks home????? At this point LLC members are mostly in our 60's (and up!) though we are also in conversation with some of our younger (i.e under 50!) friends about how the village might work for them as well. We do expect that for the first decade or so the Bright Village will have a majority of older folks and so we are thinking carefully about how to build a gracious environment for "aging in place", especially as we also are focused around an intensive life of meditation, spiritual practice and service to the Mountain Of Attention retreat sanctuary across the road from the Village. We are planning on ways to make sure we take best advantage of every cooperative means to keep each other healthy and fit. We are lucky to have a group of very skilled healers in our extended Lake County community (body-workers, herbalists, nutritionists, acupuncturists, etc.) and we plan to have the Bright Village be a place where these arts are highly developed. Nonetheless we expect that the Bright Village will see a good share of death transitions over the coming decades and we are incredibly fortunate to have a sophisticated guild, called Mate Moce (Fijiian for "Easy Death") that was established by Adi Da Samraj to serve the most auspicious death transition process.
6. Honing core values and learning the arts of consensus decision making. We have so far held two full length training sessions in consensus decision making and are editing the text of our new "Bright Village Consensus Handbook." This guide to "Formal Consensus" process is based on a prototype by C.T. Butler, with additional material from our two consensus trainers Penny Sirota and Brent Levin. We were introduced to Penny and Brent by Laird Schaub, the recently retired director of the Fellowship for Intentional Communities. We first met Laird in the 90's when we lived in Washington DC and he was one of the very first people we called to help us with our post-fire community organizing efforts. Laird travels and teaches nationally and we were very lucky to snag some open slots in his schedule after the fire to help us out. Brent and Penny are his "star students" and experienced communitarians in their own rights.
With Brent and Penny's help we are hip-deep in the process of honing our core Mission and Values documents. These will stand as the essential guideposts for the consensus process we are undertaking. We have established a "governance committee" to process input from the whole group and expect to finish the Governance Document in the coming month as a formal appendix to our legal Operating Agreement. We are particularly engaged in balancing our commitment to a common spiritual practice that values the potency of true spiritual authority and transmission with a commitment to the most cooperative approach to handling all of the intricacies of daily life business and financial solvency. We feel that we are doing pioneering work in this area.
7. Site Evaluation. One key change in the village site this winter has been the clearing of over 150 dead trees from the site. This was a significant logging operation that took nearly a month and involved a chain saw wielding crew, bulldozers, excavators and large transport trucks! Thanks to the Cobb Area Council and a local contractor, we were able to get a fantastic deal on this - over $30K worth of work for around $3K minus a one-time $1K contribution from a neighbor. Now that the dead trees are gone we have a MUCH clearer sense of what the buildable footprint of the project site might be. In addition, we made some careful observation of the sunlight during the solstice period to get a sense of how the light will move over the site during the year.
Village site from the air after tree removal (photo by Rob Wessell)
The heavy winter rains this year (over 115 inches vs average of 65) showed clearly how the water flows in and around the village site and also highlighted the potential we have for significant rainwater catchment, even during relatively mild winters. The natural "bowl" shape of the Village site will provide opportunities to capture and store many tens of thousands of gallons of rainwater. We have started working with permacultural design advisor Grover Stock , of the Living Guild to evaluate the different parts of the site. We are actively considering working with Grover and his Guild partners to design a comprehensive water system that will maximize conservation for the Village. Such a system will involve an "engineered" septic system, rather than the more common, septic tank/leach field process, and also involve separate graywater recovery, rainwater catchment and extensive on-site water storage. This will certainly increase upfront costs but have significant long-term benefits (not the least of which will be freeing up critical acreage for building sites.
8. Determining the legal structure for owning and protecting the land We are currently in the middle of an ongoing consideration of the best legal form to actually own the land on which the Bright Village will be built. In this we are working very closely with Gosia Zuk, the attorney for the Adidam Holy Institution and with Wally Muszinski, the CEO of the Adidam Holy Domains, which is the legal owner of the Mountain Of Attention retreat sanctuary. We have engaged Dev Goetschius, who is part of the Burlington Associates company (as in Burlington VT, as in Bernie Sanders!) as a consultant on this matter. Dev is probably the most knowledgeable person in the region on matters of land tenure and its relationship to "community housing land trusts" although as of this writing it is not clear that such a formal "land trust" will be the best vehicle for the land underlying the Bright Village, given our intention to both allow for "commercial" development on the land (rentable housing, community center, potential community businesses) as well as to have the land be protected in perpetuity as critical buffer properties adjacent to the Mountain Of Attention. It's complicated but we have identified several options and we are making headway.
9. Prayers and Blessings Despite the sometimes bewildering maze of details and forces that are moving in, through and around the Bright Village project, and in the midst of all the frustrating obstructions and blind alleys that we wander into, the Bright Village is, for us, fundamentally a Gift of Grace, for which we have been trained and prepared over decades and to which we are literally being "called" to respond. And in that process, we feel unfathomably fortunate to be immersed in an intimate sacred culture of spiritual practice that each day invokes and magnifies a profound Blessing Source in the living Divine Being. For us, this takes the form of our spiritual practice in relationship to Adi Da Samraj, the source of our guidance, inspiration and daily empowerment and blessing. Thus, each aspect of the process is felt as a "theatre", a sacred ritual of invocation and blessing. In this, we simply are acting as servants of a deep benign shift in global consciousness in the process of Emerging into this world.
Now that our Bright Village
project is getting close to incorporating (see last week's post "Grooving on the Fine Print
"), and we are building a good core group of potential resident-developers, we really need to start getting very serious about the big question of Where Do We Get the Money to Build the Project
? While most of our community falls pretty squarely into a middle-to-lower-middle class strata, such that making monthly housing payments is not a matter of serious concern (although we DO have a few folks who are truly very-low-income
, due to advanced age and/or a lifetime of low-paying community service work
), we are faced with the classic challenge that anyone has who wants to become a home owner - where do we get the down payment and
how much is it going to cost us in interest payments and
how confident are we that we can commit to the long term financial stability of the project - because for this project default is not an option!
To begin to understand what we are up against here we have begun to make the rounds of local banks to get a sense of what the rules of the road might be for funding a project like the Bright Village. After making calls to over a dozen banks, we have so far had appointments with three locals - Tri-Counties Bank, Savings Bank of Mendocino, and Umpqua Bank. The first two of these are fairly small, which we like - it will give us a chance to pitch the virtues of our project directly to senior bank officials whom we know will be sympathetic to our fire-recovery and local service objectives. These conversations have been VERY educational. The commercial loan officers we have met have been wonderful in walking us through the complexities of a commercial construction loan package - once again, we are learning a new language and we will probably talk with several other banks before we're done shopping.
For starters, we have learned that as a "multifamily" development, and an unorthodox one at that, we are looking, right off the bat, at higher rates (5%+ vs. 3.2% for straight home mortgages) and higher down payments (25-30% vs. 20%, 10% or even less for home mortgages). This is on top of increased construction standards and regulations for multifamily buildings. In addition, because we are building from the ground up, and any initial loans will be to bankroll the construction process, the banks will want to have extremely tight oversight (which means additional expense) of the construction process. Lucky we are not looking to make a profit on this! This really does push us to ask, can we possibly pull this off without bank financing?
It was clear to us from the beginning - in order to realize the kind of out-of-the-box village development we are envisioning for our "Bright Village" project
, we would need to find some very creative legal and financial help. Here's some of the issues we are facing:
- We want to establish our village as a cooperative, at least in function, if not in legal form (which carries other restrictions).
- We want to incorporate cutting edge permacultural design features that may lay outside the usual building code boundaries.
- We want to make use of investment funding from a variety of sources including "angel" investors who may live outside California, or even outside the United States.
- We may have to rely on bank financing at least for construction loans.
- We want to provide for some very low income units.
- We want to take advantage of potential government funding available for disaster recovery projects.
- We want to maintain a high level of control over who lives in the village. Providing relief to survivors of the 2015 Valley Fire and the creation of a sacred cooperative culture associated with service to the Mountain Of Attention retreat sanctuary are key raisons d'être for the project.
In addition to the critical ongoing mentoring by our patron saint Clark Bladsell
at NorthBay Family Homes, our search quickly brought us into contact with the Sustainable Economies Law Center
(SELC) in Oakland. We had been aware for a few years of the work of one of SELC's key founders, Janelle Orsi. She is a truly pioneering attorney who has literally written the book
on all of the legal ins and outs of cooperative ventures of all kinds. SELC holds free monthly "Legal Cafes" where you can sit down with an attorney familiar with the emerging legal landscape around what is coming to be known as the "sharing economy."
We LOVE these folks. Bright, happy, eager to get creative with the law. They were key players in lobbying effort in Sacramento pass AB 816, the "California Worker Cooperative Act"
, AB 2561, the "Neighborhood Food Act
," and AB 129, the "California Alternative Currencies Act,"
and they continue to be active partners in several other innovations in State law that will enable greater freedom to work creatively in the world of cooperation + tolerance = peace.
Cobb Area Council Committee meeting
| || |Generally, the basic solutions to human needs do not (or should not) require resort to any of the resources of an abstract State--but they should be managed locally, in one's own community, and in natural cooperation with other communities. (In other words, first establish intimate, cooperative community and the planned solutions to fundamental needs--and, on that basis, see what kind of agreements are useful in cooperation with other communities and with large-scale cooperative agencies.) -- the World-Friend Adi Da, Not-Two Is Peace The "People Part" - Part 1
By New Year’s day 2016, the disaster-response "honeymoon period" was over. After the Valley Fire swept through our community earlier in September (the third most destructive wildfire in California to date), there had been a truly inspiring and impressive surge of immediate repair activity, particularly heartfelt in a county that has long ranked among the poorest in the state. Now we were settling into the long-game of recovery. County leadership was still holding regular task force meetings in public, and FEMA leadership was in the process of handing the long-term recovery effort over to a local "Long-Term Recovery Group" (LTRG). Establishing the LRTG is part of FEMA's post-disaster process, but they are required to leave the group to organize itself as they wish.
It was clear to us and others that the new LTRG was struggling to form and be effective. Long-standing turf issues among the various agencies and friction between strong individuals was creating a forceful counter-productive current. The situation combined with the equally long-standing absence of a county emergency plan or even the semblance of a disaster council at any local level, and made organizing the LRTG very challenging. The closest active VOAD ("Voluntary Organization Active in Disaster
") affiliates were in Southern California, as those in Northern California were relatively inactive. Consultation with the FEMA National and Regional Coordinators led nowhere as each worked as quickly as possible to get the situation off their hands and turn everything over to the FEMA Volunteer Agency Liaison (VAL) below them. No one was in charge, and no effective cooperative process was emerging. While individual nonprofit representatives spouted the ideals of democratic organization and transparency, they didn't seem to know how to talk to one another or hold one another accountable. The recovery chaos could not be blamed simply on lack of resources and, as disaster survivors ourselves relying on our savings, we couldn't afford the resources to sort things out at that level.
The Little Red Schoolhouse - Cobb CA
The Cobb Area Council - What a great idea!
[Quick update - Dandelion Farm
has escaped harm from last week's Clayton Fire
, although nearly 200 homes were destroyed. Yesterday we had another flare up, just around the bend from where we are staying and we were thrown into full evacuation prep for a short time, which we turned into a full scale household fire drill, testing our preparations to pack up and leave with a 30-minute notice. The fire brigades jumped on it quickly, so only minimal damage done, for now.]
One of the more interesting developments to come out of last year's wildfires here in Lake County has been a surge in local cooperation. Of course there was the initial burst of heroic energy and enthusiastic neighborliness. This has now begun to mature into a deeper, more long range process as we put our shoulders to the deep rebuilding process and as we recognize that the new global climate realities mean that we have to build a community culture that respects the constant threat of local wildfires.
The flip side of this new reality is that we have to take direct local responsibility for our response - it has become crystal clear in this situation that the "government," federal, state or even local, is not going to "take care of" this situation and also that we each simply can not just take care of our individual needs. There is too much for any person, or family or group of neighbors, to deal with. This has manifested particularly in the establishment of the Cobb Area Council (CAC).
The CAC is an example of a formal "Municipal Advisory Council," which we set up last month via a quirky provision of the California State Code, section 31010. This law allows any County Board of Supervisors to establish by simple Resolution
a formal advisory body for any unincorporated area (i.e. not already a legal city or town). We just had to draw a line on a map outlining the area we wanted to include - how cool is that!
The Clayton Fire in Lower Lake - 6 miles from the Mountain Of Attention
It is now nearly a year since the Valley Fire and as I write today the fire season has begun in earnest here in Lake County. After anxiously watching several small fires around the county flare up and be stopped over the past few weeks, the new Clayton Fire
has been burning for three days now, (4,000 acres as of this morning) destroying much of the little town of Lower Lake, about 20 minutes from us. The sickening familiarity of the "emergency drill" is now in full swing - the news conferences, the official emergency declaration, the marshaling of local help (setting up shelters, rallying church and local nonprofit service groups, the donation process) the County Supervisors and State Senator addressing the community, the compulsive monitoring of Facebook and Calfire websites. The Lower Lake Methodist Church, where we have held several Town Meetings in the wake of last years fires, is gone, as are the offices of Habitat for Humanity. We are nervously waiting to hear from our dear friends at Dandelion Farm
, which just barely escaped last year's fires and is now directly in the path of this new one. This new fire has already been attributed to arson (from the latin ardere to burn - as in ardor) with a suspect arrested yesterday. But across the state other, even larger fires are raging (the Soberanes Fire near Big Sur is now over 75,000 acres, with one fatality already and they say it may quadruple in size and burn for another month). Even if that turns out to have been caused by some accidental spark, or "natural" cause, it is still directly related to the massive earth system changes now underway caused by our continuing psychotic dissociation from the natural earth world that has left the ground here in California parched and primed to explode. Is that not arson also?
Cyclone Winston March 19 2016
Early on the morning of Saturday March 19 2016 a great tropical Cyclone slammed into the Fijiian Islands, with winds up to 180mph, tearing a path of destruction through the island nation. Directly hit was the beautiful Hermitage Island of Naitauba
, also known as Adi Da Samrajashram, spiritual center of the global community of practitioners of the Way of the Heart, given by the spiritual master Adi Da Samraj. For over 30 years the island of Naitauba has been a site of retreat and pilgrimage for a generation of practitioners that has poured its heart into cultivating a unique place on earth, building beautiful temples, meditation halls, gardens and retreat facilities. I have had the profound good fortune to be able to visit there several time on extended 4-6 week retreats, in 1990, 1995, 2008 and 2013. Each of these trips was a major gift of spiritual deepening and transformation in my life.
"Gold can be made elementally pure and brilliant to the eye only through submission tofire." - From a "free rendering" of portions of Ch. 11 of the Bhagavata Purana
by Adi Da Samraj[i] Fasting and Fire: Purification, Rebalancing, Regeneration
Over the past 12 weeks, passing through the catastrophic fire here in Lake County and facing the violent ripping away of so much of our lives, our spiritual community, as a collective, has been going through a tremendous process of purification, very close to a literal death process for many of us (in fact several animal companions did not survive and one of our friends is still missing and presumed dead). The landscape has stopped smouldering but is now simply ashen. And as Adi Da has instructed us "death is a radical fast" and fire is quite literally the principal, primal and potent elemental force of purification.
A Fire Journal
It is now over a month since the Valley Fire, and we are (perhaps) getting an idea of what our medium term situation may be. As you may imagine, the shock, both individual and collective has been enormous. We have also been actively networking in the rest of the county - all in all nearly 1300 homes were destroyed and the community is reeling. In fact, even after a full month there is little sense of return to anything remotely normal - the landscape is blasted, with charred, burned out building sites, any remaining trees being chainsawed along the roadways, the continuing stench of smoke hanging persistently in the air. And winter is coming - the first light rains began this weekend. We are afraid that today's ash pits (toxic?) will become muddy ash pools and that the barren hillsides will not hold the rains - the danger of mudslides is now the common talk at the local coffee shop in Cobb and at town meetings.
Magdalena and I have, in particular been working (12-18 hours/day since the fire) focusing on helping our community overcome the frantic impulse of each individual to find a personal solution to the crisis and instead to quickly build the collective will and means to act more cooperatively, even communally. Given the long history (35+ years) and depth of our spiritual fellowship, this is not an entirely quixotic impulse! But it is filled with challenges - practical, personal and interpersonal.