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Proposal envisions ‘village town’ of 10,000 residents near Hopland

A proposal by a group of self-?described “social entrepreneurs” with visions of a self-sustaining town that could increase the population of the Hopland area tenfold has captured the attention of residents of Mendocino County.

With up to 10,000 residents, the “village town,” the first community of its kind according to proponents, would be the county’s second largest population center after Ukiah.

Despite widespread skepticism brought on by a long list of obstacles that include traffic and water concerns, its displacement of 423 acres of farmland - the proponents have identified but not acquired a site in McDowell Valley east of Hopland - and a dearth of funding, many in the county known for embracing alternative ideas and lifestyles are intrigued.

More than 200 people attended a presentation on the proposal held in Hopland last week.

“I love the concept. It’s very outside the box and very counter-?cultural,” said Mendocino County Supervisor Dan Hamburg, who represents Hopland and helped spread word about the project. But whether it could work in the McDowell Valley or anywhere else remains to be seen, and Hamburg said he does not know whether he ultimately would support the project should it succeed in making its way before the Board of Supervisors.

The conceptual proposal - called MendoVito - is the brainchild of Claude Lewenz, currently a New Zealand resident and author of “How to Build a VillageTown” and several other books.

Lewenz envisions 10 to 20 connected villages combined to create a town that is almost entirely self-reliant. Residents would grow food and collect rainwater in rooftop greenhouses and would walk to work at businesses within their community. It would have its own libraries, museums, theaters, taverns, sports arenas, water and sewer facilities, classrooms and an industrial park.

Cars would be banned from within the villages.

The residents of individual villages would design them based on their values. One village, for example, could be dedicated to filmmaking and be inhabited by writers, costume makers and others who might want their village to resemble a movie set.

“We don’t know how they’re going to come about. It’s whoever puts up their hand and says ‘I want to be there,’?” Lewenz said.

The villages would be concentrated on 200 acres - about half the total area - by utilizing townhomes and four-story town centers. An industrial park would occupy 35 acres, and the rest would be dedicated to open space and utility land.

The planning process is designed to be democratic in nature, with determinations about its future made through community meetings and a signature-?gathering drive aimed at letting voters decide whether the plan should move forward. As such, it would bypass county planning officials and go straight to the Board of Supervisors. The board would decide whether to approve the plan or place it on a voter ballot.

But first, the project’s stewards - the project proponents insist they are not developers - must complete a specific plan for the 423 acres that would include an environmental impact report. The leading stewards include, along with Lewenz, five others with ties to New Zealand.

That will require raising an estimated $750,000, Lewenz said.

The project also needs a benefactor willing to make loans to prospective homeowners, he said.

To make the project work, an estimated 2,000 families must commit to buying in, Lewenz said.

The project faces many hurdles, not least of which is converting more than 400 acres of farmland currently in wine grape production into a town, Hamburg noted.

The Mendocino County Farm Bureau has not yet taken a stand on the proposed project, but “typically, we try to discourage conversion of farmland,” said its executive director, Devon Jones.

The project would take a significant bite out of the county’s limited irrigated farmland, said UC Extension viticulture adviser Glenn McGourty. The county has only about 25,000 acres of irrigated farmland, he said.

“That’s an issue for me,” he said.

McGourty also was skeptical of the proposal’s grand plans for being self-?sustaining.

“It doesn’t’ seem realistic,” he said.

Mendocino County Supervisor and Potter Valley rancher Carre Brown said she, too, is generally opposed to farmland conversions and wondered whether the plan was viable, but she also found it “interesting.”

The selected site currently is part of McDowell Valley Vineyards, owned by Jake and Scot Bilbro of Marietta Cellars in Geyserville.

The land - in syrah wine grape production since about 1919 - is not for sale, but the brothers issued an email statement saying they would consider selling a portion if that was what the community wanted.

“As proud second-generation members of the farming community, we are continuing with our long-term plans of redeveloping and farming our vineyards in the McDowell Valley,” they wrote. “Our property is not on the market, nor is it in escrow, and we are not pushing the MendoVito proposal.

“ At the same time, we recognize the potential economic, social and environmental benefit that this could have for the area. If the people of Mendocino County collectively find the proposal is in their best interests, then we will support the project to move forward.”

Lewenz said he’s been pleased with the reception the proposal has received so far.

“The phone’s been ringing off the hook ever since” last week’s meeting in Hopland, Lewenz said.

If it works out, Lewenz said, he would move to Hopland.

“I like the people here. It’s my kind of place,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MendoReporter.

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