Seeding the First CLTs:

Rural Field Trials

RURAL FIELD TRIALS: Image by Bonnie Acker (c) 2014Most of the CLTs formed in the decade that followed incorporation of New Communities and publication of The Community Land Trust: A Guide to a New Model for Land Tenure in America (1972) were organized on behalf of small groups of like-minded people.  These rural homesteaders moved onto land that was leased from a nonprofit corporation in order to live in community with people who shared their social or political values.  They called themselves “community land trusts,” but they were much closer to being intentional communities – or, as Bob Swann later called them, “enclaves.”

It was not until 1978 that two organizations appeared that were to incorporate both the leased-land structure of ownership and the community-based structure of organization that Swann and his colleagues had envisioned.  These CLTs were located in rural areas, one in east Tennessee and one on the coast of northern Maine.  They were the first attempts outside of southwest Georgia to establish CLTs that not only mirrored the model WCLT-1984report-coverdescribed in the book published in 1972, but that also embodied operational features that were to become priorities for most CLTs created in the 1980s – and thereafter – including a preferential option for the poor, resale controls for the housing constructed on the CLT’s land, and an organizational commitment to standing behind newly minted homeowners after they moved into their new homes.

Woodland Community Land Trust

WCLT-Marie CirilloThe Woodland Community Land Trust (WCLT) was founded in 1978 in the Appalachian Mountains of East Tennessee. It was organized by a former nun, Marie Cirillo, who had been working in Appalachia since 1967.  While she was still a Glenmary Home Sister, a member of Marie’s religious community had gone to Boston for a year of study.  She had heard Bob Swann talk about community land trusts.  When she returned to East Tennessee, she told Marie and the other Sisters about this new model of land tenure, suggesting that it might hold potential for their work with impoverished people in Appalachia.  The Sisters pooled their funds and paid for Swann to visit East Tennessee, sometime in 1973.

Although the Sisters were immediately convinced of the worth of Swann’s ideas, it would take another five years before local residents of Rose’s Creek, where Marie had settled, were willingMarie Cirillo&neighbors to give the CLT a try.  Their hesitation was understandable.  Many of these mountain people were already living on leased land, because most of the land and nearly all of the mineral rights in their Appalachian county were in the hands of absentee corporate owners, either land companies or coal companies. These companies were willing to lease land to the locals, but they never sold it.  And the terms of the leases were always heavily biased in favor of the landowner, with little security or protection for the lessee.  Having experienced the dark side of land leasing, the residents of Rose’s Creek were understandably cautious about starting a CLT.

WoodlandCLTlogo-1984The Woodland Community Land Trust (WCLT) was finally incorporated in 1978.  Two years later, WCLT hired its first executive director, Mike Brown, with MikeBrown&WCLTboard-1982funds provided by Catholic diocese in Nashville.  He oversaw construction of the first houses, sited on a 17-acre parcel of land owned by WCLT.

Doroth Metzler-WCLTpres&PMurphy-1981As the first house was being built, WCLT’s board of directors took a significant departure from the model that Swann and his colleagues had proposed in their 1972 book.  The Woodland CLT decided to HaroldOsborne-WCLTboard-1983impose resale controls on their houses.  Drawing on the religious tradition of tithing, something quite familiar to the Southern Baptists who populated the hills and hollers around Rose’s Creek, the Woodland CLT decided that homeowners would get 90 percent of the appraised value of their houses when they moved, leaving the other 10 percent in the house as a price reduction for future homebuyers.



Covenant Community Land Trust

Covenant CLT-Lucy PoulinMeanwhile, in northern Maine, Sister Lucy Poulin was leading a similar effort to establish a CLT in her own community.  She and several other Carmelite nuns had come to Hancock County in 1968, settling in the town of Orland.  They had supported themselves by sewing shoes for a Bangor shoe company.  When the company closed in 1970, over thirty local women, including the nuns, were thrown out of work.  The Sisters responded by helping to form a sewing cooperative, where the women could work at home, making crafts that were sold through a storefront Covenant CLT-HOME Co-opthey opened on U.S. Route 1.  HOME was the name they gave to their cooperative.  The nuns later established a school and a daycare center for the co-op’s members.  They also organized Project Woodstove to deliver firewood to the elderly. Eventually, over 1500 people were connected in one way or another to HOME Co-op.

Covenant CLT-BuildingTheir next project was the construction of new housing. Sister Lucy took the lead in helping to start Self Help Family Farms in 1978.  The aim of this organization was to settle low-income families in newly built homes on 10-acre leaseholds, where each family could enjoy a degree of self-sufficiency.  The Covenant Community Land Trust was formed that same year to serve as the landholder, leasing out the land under these homesteads.

Incidentally, two people who were destined to play large roles in the future development of the CLT movement in the United States got their earliest hands-on experience working with this model through the Covenant CLT.  Chuck Matthei, who directed the Institute for Community Economics throughout the 1980s and then founded and directed Equity Trust in the 1990s, came Ellie Kastanopoulisto know Sister Lucy during his time as an organizer for the Clamshell Alliance.  He provided advice and support for the Covenant CLT during its formative years.  Ellie Kastanopolous, who assumed the directorship of Equity Trust after Chuck Matthei’s death in 2002, was one of Covenant’s first leaseholders.

Covenant CLT-Lucy Poulin w ChainsawFrom the beginning, Sister Lucy, regarded the CLT as a vehicle for helping and empowering low-income people who had been excluded from the economic and political mainstream. To express it in terms of her Catholic theology, there was a “preferential option for the poor.” She was asked in an interview, published in The Community Land Trust Handbook in 1982, about who the Covenant CLT was planning to serve.  She answered:

We’re not talking about people who are accepted; we’re talking about people who never have been accepted or had value in the community.  And we’re prejudiced in favor of those people – that’s the community of people that we want as our community.  And we’re sticking with that.  We don’t care.  I for one don’t care, what the larger community thinks.  They’re part of the problem. 

The CLT was not simply about building houses and promoting homeownership; it was about building a community of the dispossessed.

CovenantCLT1-1982 CovenantCLT2-1982


  • Marie Cirillo,  “Stories from an Appalachian Community. WCLTmasterplan-page1-1984Twentieth Annual E.F. Schumacher Lecture,” presented at Salisbury, CT, October 2000.  Pp. 202-218 in John Emmeus Davis (ed.), The Community Land Trust Reader (Cambridge, MA: Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 2010).
  • David Harper, “Community Land Trusts: Saving the Land to Which We Belong,” Exchange: Newsletter of the National Land Trust Alliance (Summer), 2007: 9–13.
  • WCLTmasterplan-page2-1984Institute for Community Economics, “Community Land Association, Clairfield, Tennessee, Pp. 48-61 (Chapter 4), in The Community Land Trust Handbook (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1982).
  • Covenant CLT-Pond1Institute for Community Economics, “Covenant Community Land Trust and HOME Co-op, Hancock County, Maine,” Pp. 62-75 (Chapter 5), in The Community Land Trust Handbook (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1982).


BAcker-Rural Field Trials