Nonprofit seeks funds to stay put on Carbondale-area ranch

CARBONDALE — Sustainable Settings just might be in a sustainable setting after all. The nonprofit organization’s ranch 4 miles south of Carbondale is still officially for sale, but the recession has altered the thinking of the executive director, Brook LeVan, in a couple of ways. For one thing, the organization cannot find a buyer. “We’re not showing it. Nobody’s looking,” he said. The 240-acre ranch — a piece of property that provides a glimpse of what ranching life was once like in the Crystal River Valley — went on the market in the spring of 2008, shortly before the recession walloped the local real estate industry. The asking price has dropped from $12.8 million to $9.5 million to no avail. Much more important than the lack of buyers is the surging popularity of Sustainable Setting’s mission. The organization has always had strong support among Roaring Fork Valley residents interested in organic farming and ranching, green development and self-reliance. But the message has really struck a chord with a broader audience during the economic crisis. “People ‘get us’ better than ever since October,” LeVan said. He has plenty of proof to back the claim: 25 people signed up for a recent organic beekeeping seminar; 20 families sought help establishing chickens for egg production; another 20 families sought counsel on vegetable gardening; Sustainable Settings cannot keep up with consumer demand for its greens, eggs and organic beef, lamb, yak and chicken; and, come summer, it will be one of the few local producers at the Aspen Farmers’ Market. LeVan also has been busy with various workshops in valley schools and with community organizations. So he and his wife, Rose, have plenty to keep them busy without working on relocating. “We didn’t want to leave, but we need to get to work,” LeVan said. He has grand visions of what Sustainable Settings could do to accomplish its mission of promoting local dependence in food production. He wants to add a dairy farm and greenhouses. He wants fruit tree orchards. He wants the ability to show more people what’s possible in growing their own food and livestock. But LeVan claimed the small nonprofit faces a huge challenge pursuing its broader mission in Pitkin County because of the regulatory process. LeVan, who is also a member of the organization’s board of directors, became frustrated with county officials in early 2008 as regulatory requirements piled up. He said the organization cannot afford to go through the county’s process; it wouldn’t have funds left to actually pursue its vision. The county’s demand that he add bathrooms and washing areas for school groups and workshop attendees is reasonable, he acknowledged. But Pitkin County needs a simpler, less expensive process for nonprofit organizations on a green mission, he maintained. He sees a certain irony that while the rest of the country is touting green business, the county erects hurdles with an aggressive regulatory process. Sustainable Setting’s board held an emergency meeting in March 2008 and decided to sell and relocate. LeVan said the intent was never to leave the Roaring Fork Valley. Moving even a few miles, into Garfield County, would have made it easier and less expensive for the nonprofit to pursue its mission, he said. Now, the future is a little cloudy. “It doesn’t look like we’re going anywhere,” LeVan said. “We’re looking for some big gifts to stay. If we can find them, we’ll have the money to stay in Pitkin County.” Board chairman Adam Lewis couldn’t be reached for comment. LeVan stressed he isn’t trying to “yank around” supporters of Sustainable Settings by changing plans. He noted that the board of directors hasn’t taken an official vote to abandon its plan to sell and relocate. But circumstances may dictate a change in action. He estimated it will require $250,000 to go through the county review process for the upgrades sought. More capital would be required for the actual improvements, like the dairy barn. The economy stinks, LeVan said, but now might be the time for the organization to seek help raising funds, when its mission is so well understood.