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The Earthships are coming 

A new housing development just east of Colorado Springs models itself after the Taos tourist stop, blending sustainability and alluring architectural aesthetics

As communitarian, utopian-type projects go, Earthship Village Colorado straddles an electric fence.

On one side, the 400-acre, 75-home planned development, a 20-minute drive east of downtown Colorado Springs off State Highway 94, could be accused of the same urban sprawl that's boxed and bludgeoned its way over so much historic ranch land in the region — another symbol of our dying heritages and dubious industrial food-distribution structures.

On the other side, owing to the nature of its innovative and controversial design — living habitats capable of existing totally off-grid, sewage treatment included, functioning in step with their environment — the Earthship cluster perfectly embraces our sustainability zeitgeist, illustrating a better way to treat our lands, our sense of home, and how best to use precious resources in the West.

Add to this equation that EVC will take over a former hog farm, on land that was once coal mined, next to more land that recently saw exploratory fracking holes drilled by Ultra Petroleum, not far from Peterson Air Field, and you've got a Twilight Zone-esque materialization of a progressive refuge amid the destructive demands of this modern world.

But wait. Just how progressive are we talking here? With easements incorporated into the rural-residential zoning to establish wildlife habitat and common space, plus perhaps community gardens or a Waldorf school, might this get a bit creepy and cultish, even socialistic? Surely, there will be hippies, even — gasp! — nudists.

The folks behind EVC are way ahead of you.

"Will this be some sort of commune?" reads a posting on its website's FAQ page.

Negatory, Captain.

The Earthshippers will ask you to look toward Taos, N.M., and its internationally lauded and replicated Greater World Earthship Community. Michael Reynolds, the creator of that surreal and stunning sprawl, founded in 1994, will play a consulting role as the architect behind a handful of aesthetically dazzling models available locally.

Even as a sightseer: Get excited. One of Taos' treasures, more a cool clone stamp than cookie cutter project, is migrating to within 15 miles of our city center.

So, what is an Earthship, exactly?

Head to earthship.com to see architectural renderings and sample homes that incorporate passive solar, thermal mass construction using trash and recycled materials (including tires), photovoltaics, wind turbines and integrated water systems. They're entirely self-contained, with no water, sewage, electric or gas lines; greenhouse space even allows for food production.

In the words of Reynolds, "[O]ur vessel (home) must be designed to sail with the forces that exist beyond human control and exploitation."

From the outside, gazers may think they've been transported to the rounded mud huts of Star Wars' Tatooine planet. But once inside, a person couldn't be more grounded. Speaking from several personal experiences inside them, simply to stand in one captures the essence of feng shui: You feel suddenly in tune with your surroundings, peripherally eying soft curved walls instead of hard lines. Natural light pours in, plants grow just feet from where you bathe, sleep, eat and enjoy respite.

Earthships are womb-like in their own way, a battery charger for the soul. And visitors may engage on an intrinsic, intuitive level that may even be beyond words, like when taking a bite of exquisite food.

When visiting Taos a couple years ago, Boulder-based real estate investor and developer David Hatch had such an experience, recalling "being very struck by the technology and different systems."

He's the man behind EVC, along with co-owner Daniel Ziskin. Ziskin has a physics Ph.D., worked as a satellite data specialist with NASA, NOAA and NCAR for two decades and currently operates several ventures, including the house-flipping Boulder-based Point High Investments, and a Monument-based company called BEECO, aimed at reducing waste and incentivizing consumers for green behavior.

Hatch acts as managing partner for his own umbrella company, Terrell Properties Corp., through which he purchases properties before shifting them into new companies, such as Earthship Village Colorado. In the last 20-plus years of business, he's acquired and sold nearly 30 properties in Colorado, Arizona and Wyoming, including two sizable office buildings, one in Evergreen, one in Cheyenne, which he still owns.

The partners purchased EVC's roughly 400 acres from Vectra Bank for $209,000, after the land had fallen into foreclosure around seven years ago. Though Hatch concedes that he's developing EVC "first and foremost" to make money, the self-described outdoor enthusiast says he wants to "integrate my values ... to do something good for the environment, land and people."

Prior to purchasing the land, Hatch researched everything from Pete Field's flight traffic (with a north-south-oriented runway, low-flying crafts aren't a worry) to complex water rights (it's deeded "with sufficient water to supply the houses and some agricultural use") and mineral rights (fully included). He funded a two-phase environmental analysis, which he says concluded that the land was free from coal- or manure-related contamination. To the best of his knowledge, no anaerobic lagoons (typically hazardous manure ponds) were ever present.

Chad DeVolin of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment cites Weld County as a good example of where commercial real estate development has safely and routinely replaced former farmland.

Once parcels are sold through local RE/MAX agent Sue Myers — likely as early as Spring 2015, after groundbreaking occurs on a model home/visitor center later this summer — Hatch will issue a general warranty deed that will "ensure to the next owner that this land is clean."

Spatially, he views direct parallels with Taos' community, in that both are high-desert areas with a mountainous backdrop, near enough to a big city to enable easy commutes to work.

"Right from the start," he says, "we're designing and developing the land in sync with nature and in coordination with permaculture," referencing the ecological design and engineering philosophy structured around sustainability. On one of his first visits to the site with his landscape architect, Hatch brought along Boulder-based permaculturist Marco Lam, who has taught locally with our Pikes Peak Permaculture community. Hatch says Lam helped him figure out "how to bring back life in a native way, especially taking into account the resources like water."

A simple example, he says, is how conventional homes funnel water away from foundations, while Earthships "embrace it, catch it on roofs, funnel it to cisterns and use it."

Four times, actually, says Earthship Biotecture architectural assistant Heather Hurley, explaining how pipes lead to filters from a cistern, then to sink and shower heads, which drain as graywater into planters where foods grow. From there, the water's pumped into toilets for use, which next drain via a traditional leeching septic system into a blackwater field for more plant feeding.

Though two laws were passed by Colorado legislators in 2009 to relax rainwater harvesting regulations, one tied to those with well-water rights, Hatch points out that each county must administer its guidelines, which El Paso County has yet to do. Thus, EVC's local water attorney, Christopher Cummins, could potentially be looking to have EVC's well permits amended by the Colorado Division of Water Resources, as the Indy's speculative conversation with Assistant County Attorney Cole Emmons indicated. EVC, because it is a subdivision, would likely have to undergo a "cumulative effects analysis" to examine potential "injury" to those affected downstream.

Ideally for EVC, the Earthships' wise water usage would prevail, perhaps setting future precedent. Worst-case scenario, says Hatch, the Earthships might be forced to function with conventional water practices, even though Reynolds' efficient systems inarguably are better for aquifers in the West.

Hatch's team has been working with the El Paso County land-planning development office, undergoing a typical early assistance process, confirms planner Raimere Fitzpatrick. Hatch says Fitzpatrick should see a formal land-use application from him within weeks.

Getting municipalities to go along with radical design principles is not an easy task, as Michael Reynolds learned after his first experimental building forays in the early '70s. The subject of the 2007 film Garbage Warrior, Reynolds became a controversial figure, a "renegade architect" with "green disciples." As part of his personal war, he "voluntarily gave up his New Mexico architecture license in the mid '90s after being unfairly persecuted" by the New Mexico Board of Examiners for Architects, says Earthship Biotecture education director Kirsten Jacobsen.

After learning how to tie his own tie, as shown in one scene in the film's trailer, he endured lengthy battles with his area government, while still retaining his Colorado and Arizona architecture licenses, according to Jacobsen. Extensive relief work overseas (proving the utility of his designs for aiding impoverished areas) and the dirt on his sleeves granted him sustainability-guru status along the way, further fueled by half a dozen books he's authored on Earthships.

Surely some stories from his journey will be told when Reynolds appears June 14 at East Library, but Hatch admits that the lecture and Q&A (with a $10 ticket price that he says won't cover his costs) will also be marketing for EVC.

"He's there as a spokesperson for Earthships and the environment, what's happening to our planet," says Hatch, noting Reynolds will also be paid as the architect of EVC's models. "We're bringing him here to draw a crowd; our end is to sell the lots and promote the building of Earthships."

EVC's Earthship costs are projected to range from $250,000 to $450,000, which includes five-acre parcels; two acres may be built on. Hatch won't construct Earthships and then sell them; instead, EVC will populate as parcels are sold, with buyers able to choose among the models and customize as needed.

Reynolds' most universal model, the Global, tends to cost around $225 per square foot by New Mexico prices, plus up to another $10,000 for construction drawings — generally in line with the cost of constructing a conventional home. While committed DIYers can laboriously construct their own Earthships for as little as $50,000 to $100,000, buyers here will be contracting with licensed builders who'll follow code requirements to build their Earthship for them, says Hatch, noting areas open to participation, such as helping construct an artful wall of glass bottles mortared together, should they wish.

Hatch calls EVC a 10-year project, considering that the Taos community has seen around 75 houses pop up thus far, out of the 130 for which it's been plotted. (It should be factored in that as part of Reynolds' battle, GWEC was ruled an illegal subdivision in 1996, and needed seven years to come into compliance and to continue growth.)

"Finding contractors and ramping up won't be a problem," he assures, should the early interest he's seen pay off with early purchases. He goes on: "These are beautiful homes. The tagline we're using is 'Living beautifully off the grid.'"

Hey, it beats "Sailing through sustainable sprawling ... did we mention that we aren't a commune?"

matthew@csindy.com

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