OPAL Community Land Trust (1989)

Orcas Island, Washington


In the 1980s, rapid population growth and escalating real estate values threatened the quality of life valued by residents of Orcas Island. Located one-hour by ferry from the mainland of Washington State, islanders grew concerned about the loss of open space and the lack of available housing that was affordable for year-round residents.

Many people worked toward solutions, yet three individuals stand out for their leadership and innovation in launching OPAL Community Land Trust to sustain a healthy and economically diverse island community: Peter Fisher, Penny Sharp Sky, and Michael Sky.

Peter Fisher had grown up in Seattle, but spent many summers visiting his grandparents on the island during the 1960s and 1970s. As a teenager, he attended school and spent time with relatives in Norway. He admired the Norwegians’ consensus-based social values and their approach to land stewardship, where anyone can enter private farmland with the obligation that they harm nothing.

In the 1980s, Peter – who had decided to make the island his full-time residence – was passionately driven to protect open space and to create affordable housing for the island community. Searching for solutions to foster an inclusive and sustainable island community, Peter read an article written by Robert Gilman, published in the winter 1984 edition of In Context magazine. The article was entitled “The Idea of Owning Land” and described the community land trust model. Later he attended two national CLT conferences in Atlanta, Georgia (1987) and Stony Point, New York (1988).

During that same period, Penny Sharp Sky and Michael Sky – recent transplants to Orcas Island from the Boston MA area – were working on creating a landed community. They wanted something like co-housing where people could gather together for meals and share some common facilities. They met Peter and discovered many shared values and hopes. Coincidentally Michael had read the same article that had inspired Peter. Penny and Michael also had a pragmatic reality similar to many other islanders: they needed an affordable, year-round home. The island’s rental market was unstable, and often meant that residents were renting homes that lacked insulation or adequate plumbing.

After many conversations, Penny, Michael and Peter convened the first public meeting in July 1988 to talk about the need for creating a new organization to, in their words, “provide permanently affordable access to land, homes and workplaces for current and future community members in need.” After months of meetings and committee work, OPAL (Of People And Land) Community Land Trust was officially incorporated in May 1989.

Three years of near-death experiences and triumphs followed. The organization weathered internal disagreements about what land to buy, when to hire staff, and how to fund operations. Trustees debated whether or not to pursue funding from government agencies, which would mean more restrictions. For example, it would not be possible to finance a commons house, so the hopes for a co-housing styled development would be dashed. In the end, the overriding struggle was to find money to buy land and to finance housing so that OPAL’s homes would be affordable. The only way to make that happen was with government-funded grants and loans.

It took almost a year to obtain the first grant: $300,000 from the Washington State Housing Trust Fund, awarded in April 1990. Soon after, OPAL received an $80,000 federal Community Development Block Grant and was offered a seven-acre piece of land in the village of Eastsound at a reduced price.

These were major achievements, but the organization nearly foundered on the problem of affordable mortgages for OPAL’s prospective homeowners – hard-working, capable people who were creditworthy, but couldn’t earn enough in the local economy to qualify for traditional housing loans (then pegged at 7.5%). To make their payments affordable, they needed interest rates of 3% or less.

Fred Klein, a local architect and member of OPAL’s Board of Trustees, proposed applying to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers Home Loan Program (now called USDA Rural Development) for construction financing and mortgage loans, offering interest rates as low as 1%. But the application was arduous, so the hardy band of volunteers applied for and was awarded a grant from Washington State’s Housing Trust Fund for technical assistance.

OPAL used this grant to hire Mary Burki, who worked with Peter Fisher to prepare a strong application to USDA. OPAL was awarded funds from USDA for a demonstration project, enabling the organization to proceed with the construction of Opal Commons, a new neighborhood of 18 homes. OPAL became the first community land trust in the United States to receive funding from the USDA, and most of OPAL’s subsequent projects have utilized USDA financing.

Meanwhile, after two years of all-volunteer labor, OPAL hired its first staff in 1991: executive director/project manager, Jeanne Beck. Fred Klein was then hired to draw up plans for OPAL’s first neighborhood, now that USDA financing had been secured. Working closely with future residents on site planning and house design, and incorporating feedback from neighbors, OPAL’s leaders were determined to avoid the small-lot subdivision of typical suburban development. Future homeowners valued a rural aesthetic and wanted to grow food. They followed design guidelines articulated by Christopher Alexander in A Pattern Language to retain privacy while also fostering interaction among neighbors. As a result, the design reflected many of the qualities that Peter Fisher had admired in Norway: small houses clustered around common open space and a half-acre area for growing food.

Everyone, especially the prospective homeowners, had to make compromises in order to meet the requirements and restrictions of the funding agencies and to keep the houses affordable, despite high local building costs. Finally, in May 1995, after a year and a half of site work, construction, and countless work parties – and five years after OPAL’s founding – 18 families moved into their new homes at Opal Commons.

Since that first project, OPAL has gone on to develop more residential neighborhoods. In addition to new construction, OPAL has purchased, renovated, and resold existing houses. On occasion, entire houses have lifted off their foundations moved from one site on Orcas Island to another. As of 2014, OPAL was housing nearly 5% of the island’s year-round population.

OPAL’s role does not end when houses are constructed or rehabilitated and sold to eligible households for an affordable price. Instead, OPAL continues to serve as the long-term steward for all of its homes, protecting their affordability, preventing foreclosures, and promoting regular repairs. OPAL was one of the first community land trusts to establish repair and replacement reserves for its owner-occupied housing, modeling and sharing a “best practice” that other CLTs have begun to adopt.

OPAL has accomplished all of this with an energetic board, an engaged and generous membership, and a relatively small staff that has never numbered more than six people, working the equivalent of four full-time employees.

Beyond the considerable impact they have had on Orcas Island, developing affordably priced housing for individuals and families who add to the economic diversity and social vitality of this island community, OPAL’s staff have played significant roles in the national CLT movement. Lisa Byers, OPAL’s executive director since 1996, was a co-founder of the National CLT Network and served as the first co-chair of the Network’s training and research division, the National CLT Academy. Julie Brunner, a member of OPAL’s staff since 2002, also served on the Academy’s board and has been a leading consultant and trainer for the National CLT Network. In 2014, the Network honored her with the John E. Davis Award for Scholarship, in recognition of her inspirational teaching, coaching and mentoring.

The mission and method of OPAL have remained constant throughout its history. It has stayed focused on sustaining a healthy and economically diverse island community. It has continued to use community ownership of land and long-term ground leasing to accomplish this goal, providing permanently affordable homes and related education and support for islanders whose housing needs are not being met by the traditional market. At the same time, OPAL has endeavored to keep the “C” in CLT, cultivating a strong board, maintaining an island-wide membership, and building community within every neighborhood it has developed

Narrative contributed by Vicki Brems and Lisa Byers (2015)

To learn more about the OPAL Community Land Trust, past and present:

  • OPAL Community Land Trust
  • Robert Gilman, “The Idea of Owning Land,” In Context, Winter, 1984.
  • OPAL Community Land Trust, Telling Our Stories, Building Homes, Creating Community. Eastsound, WA: OPAL, 1999.
  • OPAL Commons, Project profile in Affordable Housing Design Advisor