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Telford Farms: Cedar

Historic Telford Farms Land Preserved: 42 Acres Protected Within This “Intentional” Community

From our 2009 Summer Newsletter

The children growing up on Telford Farm near Cedar have a big back yard to play in. Eighty-eight acres, to be exact. Fort building is popular and imaginary play runs rampant in the woods and fields where video games and TV can’t intrude. This time of year, they roam the forest in search of wild leeks, onions, and morels for an annual spring feast. With their parents, the children also help tend a community garden and six-acre vineyard.

“The kids’ play time is dominated by being outside, at all times of the year,” says Kate Fairman, mother of three of the 14 Telford Farm children, ages one to 17, who are part of this “intentional community.” Kate and her husband, Bill Queen, were among the first three families of the group to build here five years ago. Together with their neighbors, the group has donated a conservation easement on 42 of the acres to ensure the land will forever be protected.

The project has been nearly 15 years in the making. It began when the late Gordon Robertson, and his wife, Paula, put the land on the market. Zoning would have allowed for 44 houses here, but Gordon, who was one of the Leelanau Conservancy’s earliest chairmen, wanted to sell to a buyer who would keep the property’s beautiful rural character intact.

Joan Ursu saw the for-sale sign while driving by and was intrigued. What if she could get a group of like-minded people together who wanted to establish a community where they would share in the costs and the benefits of such a large parcel? She talked about it at her law office, and with friends. One thing led to another, and as neighbor Jeff Anderson says, “It went viral.”

Joan met with Gordon at a small café in Suttons Bay. “He really didn’t want to see the land split, and neither did we,” she says. “He was very clear about his wishes.” He offered land contract financing and a deal was struck. “There was a lot of mutual trust there,” adds Joan.

Ultimately, nine families bought into the project which called for just 10, three-quarter-acre clustered home sites. So far, six homes have been built, all of which were sited for maximum solar exposure and four of which are “green” homes that feature a clay and straw insulation structure. None can be seen from County Road 651 or Schomberg Road, which form a large V around Telford Farm. All six homes were deliberately kept off the ridgelines. “This fits in really well with the Leelanau Conservancy’s goal of protecting viewsheds from the road,” says Ellen Fred. She and her husband, Bob Martel, recently moved into their newly built home which overlooks the vineyard and beyond that, the Leelanau Conservancy’s Cedar River Natural Area.

For Ellen, an attorney who herself specializes in land conservation law and conservation easements, living at Telford Farm is a dream-come-true. She has been interested in communal living since her early 20s, when she took a road trip to explore similar communities across the country. She traded labor for lodging and learned a lot about farming and got to see firsthand what worked and what didn’t. After the trip, she was sold. “I knew this was the way I wanted to live,” she says. “It makes sense. On a community farm, the work gets done faster and is a lot of fun.” Ellen also mentioned that she grew up in a wonderful neighborhood on Old Mission where her parents would let her and her brother run off and play “until the dinner bell rang.” “I wanted to recreate that for my children,” she said. Ironically, her brother’s playmate in that neighborhood was Brian Ursu, who is now Ellen’s closest neighbor on Telford Farm.

Until the mid-60s, Telford Farm functioned as a working dairy farm. Its history is told in a classic old barn, chicken coop and granary clustered near the homes. Currently, the barn is used for storage and to house three horses belonging to one of the group’s families. A dairy cow is arriving soon, and the group also envisions the barn as the home of future barn dances and social gatherings. Chickens cluck nearby; each family has an “egg day” where they clean the coop and feed the chickens. In exchange, they tote home a basket of freshly laid eggs. Behind the barn, members till a community vegetable and flower garden.

How does it all work? Monthly meetings, bylaws and group consensus determine what’s fair and what’s needed from each family. In the vineyard that Gordon Robertson put in years ago, every family must put in 70 hours of work each year. Those who can’t, for whatever reason, whether it be a new baby or a trip abroad, pay into a fund instead. This year, Kate’s high school-aged son Clayton took up some of the neighbor’s slack. It’s like a part time job that she doesn’t have to drive him to, she says.

Finalizing the details of the conservation easement took a number of years as the group was still evolving. Joan Ursu says it was important to complete the agreement to honor Gordon’s wishes, and to ensure that their initial dreams for the property became official. Through the last decade, she says they consulted with the Conservancy a number of times. “We got great advice and counsel on how it could work best,” says Joan.

Gordon Robertson passed away in 2004 after a courageous battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease.) “We’re so pleased that Gordon’s legacy lives on with the completion of this conservation easement,” says Brian Price, Executive Director of the Leelanau Conservancy. “Gordon loved Leelanau County and worked tirelessly for the betterment of the community. Besides his many years volunteering for the Conservancy, he also helped to found ShareCare and the Leelanau Children’s Choir.”