Twenty-five residents of a planned community of tiny houses in Peterborough are facing a 4pm deadline Wednesday to leave their homes after town officials discovered a litany of building code violations last week.
The Walden Eco-Village, known simply as ‘the Village’ by its residents, features a collection of small cottages and even smaller units called casitas. Residents of the community pursue a low-impact lifestyle with a focus on sustainability, all while paying rents starting at just $455 and running up to $1,400.
“This is a different way of thinking about things,” said Amy Wilson, one of the first tenants of the village. She said her neighbors are seeking simplicity in their lives, which sometimes includes foregoing modern conveniences.
“Twenty-five of us share two washers and two dryers. It works beautifully,” she said. “We have a schedule.”
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But that utopian vision was dashed last week, after the town’s code enforcement officer and fire chief announced that the owner of the property, Akhil Garland, failed to secure proper permits, and has strung together electricity for the properties in a way that creates an immediate safety hazard.
The town gave the residents five days to leave the property, with the power scheduled to be cut to the housing units later Wednesday.
“The timing for this is awful,” said Chief Ed Walker. “Not that there is any such thing as good timing, but the timing for this is awful. You look at where we are for the winter, the holiday season, the weather forecast. All those things. But all of that aside, there really is a present danger, a true danger to the people that are living up there.”
Garland, the property’s owner, disputes that he’s been renting out homes that pose a risk to its residents. He says the village has never had a safety issue in its 12 years of existence.
While the town says the units were never permitted to serve as full-time residences, the people living there have nevertheless used their village address to register cars, register to vote and receive mail.
“The town has known about this for years and years and years,” said Garland.
This summer, Garland went to the town to propose an expansion to the village, which prompted a site visit from the planning board. That was followed up with by a inspection from the town’s code enforcement officer last Thursday.
“I honestly thought that when the town code officer came through he’d say, 'Oh yeah, this needs to be brought up to code, let's take care of that. But, oh my gosh I've never been here but look how amazing these houses are,' ” said Wilson, an accupuncturist who along with her husband raised their son in the village. “And that is not what happened.”
Instead, inspectors found a range of violations, including unsafe electrical and propane hookups, and extension cords running from cottage to cottage. The town claims Garland never obtained building permits for the casitas, and that none of the units appear to meet the minimum safety standards for housing rentals in the state.
After days of back and forth negotiations, Garland and the town were unable to find an immediate solution.
“All of my attention and energy is going into finding shelter for these beautiful people,” said Garland.
The town is agreeing to keep power flowing to the village’s pump house and wood-fired boiler, so that the cabins don’t suffer immediate damage from a lack of heat. Residents will be allowed to return to collect their possessions, but it isn’t clear if or when the units will be brought up to code.
“The frustration with Akhil is that he didn’t do things properly the way he was supposed to do it, and now he’s put us in this situation,” said Wilson. “But my frustration with the town is that they’ve known what's going on, all the different departments, and they chose winter, middle of a pandemic, right before Christmas to upend and unhouse 25 people and five children.”