Sustainable Ranch Plans Get Ok

Big "green" project begins near Aspen

Colorado Daily, February 2, 2004

Last week, Sustainable Settings, a non-profit organization based just outside Aspen, received the approval it needed to create a research and education ranch exploring sustainable living practices such as designing "green" buildings, producing wind and solar energy, and using biological waste treatment.

Pitkin County approved the re-zoning of the historical 244-acre Thompson Creek Ranch from Ranch/Rural zone to Public zone with allowances for innovative land use and building projects, including the county’s first wind power generator.

Brook Le Van, co-founder and director of Sustainable Settings, explained that though it was a long process, the input from the county and neighboring residents was very helpful in ironing out the details.

"We’ve gotten public approval to pursue our mission in full. We went in with the idea that this would be an arduous path. But it was a critical part of the design process because the county officials had a lot of experience in this area," he said.

Le Van feels strongly that sustainable practices are necessary to ensure the continuing availability of natural resources. He feels that within his lifetime, resource depletion will become a reality and will seriously affect the lifestyles most people take for granted. Learning how to maximize the resources we still have left is critical.

"We’re sitting on the remainder of our energy reserves. We have an opportunity right now to intelligently use that energy to create an infrastructure that is sustainable in the long run, and that will let us live fairly well," he said.

Mike Stranahan, retired schoolteacher and Sustainable Settings board member, feels encroaching development is leading to a disappearing lifestyle that it is critical for people to connect with the earth and understand how they’re getting their food.

"The Roaring Fork valley is filling, open space is disappearing everywhere, and I think people need a place that they can participate in, like growing plants and feeding the pigs and chasing them when they get out of their pens," he said.

Now that the ranch’s master plan has been approved by the county, Le Van is ready to get started.

Long-range plans include designs for green residential, office and agricultural buildings, renewable locally-produced solar, wind and hydro electric energy, on-site biological waste treatment, and a host of measures for efficient water, materials and energy use.

Le Van explains that the approach at Sustainable Settings has been and will continue to be a group effort. "We believe the collective is more powerful than the individual. We try to gather stakeholders – ranchers, plumbers, electricians, artists – who bring ideas to the table."

Bill Fales, a veteran rancher who shares a fence and a ditch with Le Van, advises he has some doubts about the viability of wind energy in the valley, "I think it’s a great idea, but we don’t hardly have any wind here, I’m skeptical how well it would work but if it works it will be great," he said.

Stranahan says if wind power doesn’t work, they’ll go with something that produces results. Solar and hydro-electric power are viable options.

Fales agrees, "They’d be crazy not to take advantage of the sun here," he said.

Regardless of his skepticism, Fales says he’s glad to have them in the neighborhood. The land was originally offered for sale as seven 35-acre plots when Sustainable Settings purchased the entire ranch.

"I don’t have any problem with them here at all; I’d much prefer Brook and Sustainable Settings trying that concept out than a golf course or subdivision development. They’re a much better neighbor for me to have."

The ranch is now permanently protected by a conservation easement co-authored by Sustainable Settings, Pitkin County Open Space and Trails Program and The Conservation Fund.

Two-thirds of the land is designated open space and contains a critical wildlife corridor. The remaining one-third of the property will be devoted to agriculture and buildings. "All the buildings will be on the southern 25 acres," Le Van said.

Looking forward, Le Van and the Sustainable Settings organization have more questions than answers, but that’s what the project is all about.

"For instance," Le Van said, "We know we can point a structure south and gather enough energy to heat it, but how do we get the BTUs required to boil water for our tea and make toast before we run out the door to work every morning without oil, coal or gas?" he said.

The answer to these questions can be found in nature, Le Van says, and he plans to do the asking at the new Sustainable Settings Ranch.