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On a 10-acre parcel of oak hammock and wetlands in a woodsy, residential neighborhood off Fruitville Road, the elements appear to be coming together for an experiment in elder living that a small band of dedicated believers have spent three years pursuing.

Another two years from now, if all goes as expected, some 35 home buyers will move into a cohousing community designed and conceived with their input, that will operate according to their rules. Among other things, the founding co-owners will get to decide whether their new home will be limited to residents over 50 or allows younger residents. Either way, the emphasis will be on creating living spaces that anticipate the needs people have as they get older.

“What we’re talking about here is making sure it’s designed and developed so it works for elders. I think it’s a fairly small group that only wants it to work for elders,” said Zev Paiss, a Boulder, Colo., cohousing consultant who will provide marketing and community-building expertise as the project moves forward.

Cohousing got its start in Denmark in the 1970s, and has slowly caught on in the United States, mostly in the West. But as baby boomers explore their retirement options, momentum is picking up. According to Paiss, 120 such communities have been completed in this country, with another 100 in the works. Of those, only four are elder projects, with “probably a dozen” in some stage of development, including the Sarasota initiative.

Paiss said a main reason for allowing all ages to reside in cohousing is that often, today, grown children come back to live with their parents or grandparents raise their children’s children. But unlike communities built around the needs of children and young families, this will be designed around the needs of aging residents.

Cohousing communities vary in style and substance, but certain aspects define them: Residents participate in planning and managing the development; and the design fosters social interaction, with large common areas. They usually contain between 20 and 40 households, and the residences are owned individually, as with a condominium. But instead of a condo board that rules the roost, a cohousing community is more likely to reach a group consensus on major issues, typically over a shared supper.

HomeShare Florida, a local nonprofit that promotes supportive living arrangements, has been holding workshops to assemble prospective founding residents. Van Deist, who runs HomeShare Florida with Dennis Celorie, reported that more than 35 people have already expressed interest in participating.

Richard Adelson, a Clearwater architect who will be designing the project, said his client, Ranmar Development of Tampa, has optioned the Sarasota site for a year. The project partners will spend that time assembling and prequalifying the home buyers, and hope to begin construction in the fall of 2011.

Deist, 69, and Adelson, 67, both intend to become residents themselves. Adelson said he has lived in the same Clearwater house for 21 years, and does not know his neighbors: “Everybody drives into their garage, goes into their house, and closes their door.”

In a typical cohousing community, the parking is clustered at the edge of the homes, so residents walk through a common courtyard or garden surrounded by front porches that facilitate spontaneous chats.

Residents of the Sarasota project, Deist said, can decide they want a living unit set aside for a caretaker or concierge. If they opt for small homes, he said, they can decide to put guest rooms in the common building, for when family comes to visit. In ironing out such issues, he said, they will learn whether cohousing is for them.

“You have an opportunity to know your neighbors, and decide if you want them to be your neighbors,” he said.

Paiss, who has lived in cohousing for 16 years, said that while Sarasota’s demographics make it a logical spot for this project, up until now “there weren’t really burning souls in Florida to educate people, get the word out and create a groundswell for it.”

Paiss and Deist looked at a developers’ site in Englewood three years ago, but the project fell apart when the group of elders expressed a preference for Sarasota. Since then, the search has been on for a new location.

Now, Paiss said, the drop in land and building costs helps cohousing make sense in Sarasota.

“Up until the 2008 calamity, land prices were very expensive,” he said. “You have to have the right combination of economic conditions for cohousing, as well as interested parties.”

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