Ideas for tiny houses and urban gardens grow on Wheeling Island.
Retirement gives people time to explore new passions. Some choose fly fishing. Others take up oil painting. But Martin Wach’s post-retirement passion is transforming the face of Wheeling Island with tiny houses. “All I wanted to do was open up the conversation,” he says. “Instead, I opened up a Pandora’s box.”
Wach’s tiny house endeavors began when he and his wife, Delia Wach—co-authors of nine published children’s books—retired to Wheeling. Wach noticed the incredibly fertile ground on Wheeling Island, west of downtown Wheeling in the Ohio River, and deemed it the perfect place to build a garden. But because Wheeling Island is in a floodplain, building a permanent home didn’t seem like the best idea. Property values on the island are low, but new construction comes with hefty insurance costs.
Then an idea popped into Delia Wach’s mind. What if people on the island lived in small, portable, manufactured “tiny houses” that could be quickly and easily moved when water levels rise? And what if, on those plots of land, home owners could take advantage of the fertile ground and grow their own food in tiny gardens?
The Wachs did some research and found this concept had been done before. A similar project in Detroit brought tiny houses and farmland right into the city and is considered by some to be the first urban “agrihood” in the country. “There’s so much open land in these cities where there was once a factory or houses that had to be torn down, and no one knows what to do with it. We figured out what to do with it, and it’s turned out to be pretty cool,” Wach says.
The houses Wach is considering begin as shells manufactured by Amish craftsmen in Ohio and Pennsylvania. His vision is that, once the shell is purchased and placed on the lot on Wheeling Island, local workers will finish and furnish the home. All of the houses are built with either wheels or pontoons to adapt quickly to rising waters.
Economically, tiny houses provide a lot for a little. Wach estimates a typical mortgage on one of his tiny houses would be less than $700 a month—which, in Wheeling, makes owning a home cheaper than paying rent. “The land is cheap and the houses are great but inexpensive, and you get to do a little farming, and it’s one minute from downtown,” Wach says.
Growing a Movement
Some of Wach’s tiny house plans have come to fruition. He and Delia have a home on Wheeling Island, which they use as an office and storage for their garden. Wach is also working with a local church to install a tiny house for anyone in need of a temporary place to stay.
But he’s still working to get community members and local government officials on board with his larger plans. Some have argued that a bundle of tiny houses could drop property values. Wach doesn’t think that will happen. He based his proposed zoning model on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, and reasons that, if tiny houses for low-income workers don’t affect property values of multi-million-dollar homes there, tiny houses on Wheeling Island will not hurt property values here. “It’s not just tiny houses; it’s affordable houses,” he says.
Wach has gone through meeting after meeting with city government over the past year. For his plan to go forward, city council has to pass an ordinance that would allow the development of tiny houses on the island. But that decision has yet to be made.
Until then, Wach will continue with his gardening efforts on Wheeling Island. The combination of fertile soil, open land, temperate weather, and low elevation allows for nearly year-long gardening. Wach hires people who are blind and mentally challenged to help in his gardens, using strings with knots, chimes, and herbs to mark his plots. The result? Abundant and efficient produce. “I’ve never farmed on anything better to grow things on,” Wach says. “I’ve never seen anything grow tomatoes and vegetables like this.”
There are many similarities between Wach’s garden and his plans for a tiny home community—the soil is fertile and ready; it’s just going to take some time before anything sprouts. “I’ve learned you have to be in it for the long haul,” Wach says. “But I’ve lived all over the world, and I can’t say I’ve loved living anywhere else more than right here.”
written by Jennifer Skinner
photos courtesy of Martin Wach