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Utahns creating a sustainable, off grid community

Published: Friday, Aug. 13 2010 12:33 a.m. MDT

Emilee Allan, 8, listens to Emily Potter and Monica Dixon play guitars outside of the cob support shed on Sunday at Safe Haven Village at White Hill, an off-grid community outside of Ephraim.

Sarah A. Miller, Deseret News

SPRING CITY, Sanpete County — Heaving the flat slate stones into place along a low wall, James Torgersen seems comfortable in the wilder reaches of Sanpete County.

Surrounded by oak shrubs and rough rock on a slanting hillside, Torgersen stands in the midday heat of Utah's summer, miles from any paved roads. This is where he spends his free time, moving dirt or mixing clay to construct the hutlike structures he has designed.

With the help of a small handful of fellow Utahns, Torgersen is working to create an off grid community here.

Living off the grid means getting away from it all — literally.

For a few Utahns such as Torgersen, the idea of no more utility bills and total self-reliance, from growing food to building a home, is on its way to reality.

On the south slope of White Hill, just south of Spring City, the Safe Haven Village has started a self-sustainability project that allows members to really get away from a society they say is broken.

Their biggest complaint: Modern living doesn't take the long term into account.

How long can Utahns grow green lawns in the country's second-driest state? How would modern man cope if a major infrastructure like trucking went away and suddenly supermarket shelves were empty?

The concerns might seem abstract and distant, but these are questions Safe Haven Village is trying to answer. The off grid community was started by Utahns looking to change the way people think about modern living. The group purchased 90 acres of land in March and since has been building structures and teaching seminars on how sustainable living works.

Some states such as Colorado and New Mexico have embraced self-sustainability with building companies dedicated to the zero-energy, green model. And even though cob homes built from activated clay and dirt have cropped up in communities such as Moab, the trend is just beginning to find its footing in Utah.

Living off the grid may be about living simply, but launching such a project is complex. Safe Haven founders will have to convince Sanpete County officials that non-traditional amenities like dry mulch toilets are safe alternatives to septic tanks, and they'll need to come up with enough money to buy the necessary water rights for the 18-home project they envision.

In the meantime, they're buying water rights for four homes and waiting to present a minor subdivision plan for the project's first phase. And they've been hard at work building the structures that don't require permits.

"This is an evolving project," said community member Sterling Allan. "We're trying to do as much as we can now."

The goal for the community is much larger than that. Torgersen hopes to incorporate as many sustainable techniques into the community plans as possible. Whether it's collecting rainwater, building greenhouses or using solar energy, Torgersen hopes to turn the wild property into a place where people can come to practice total self-sustainability.

"I don't have to go out there and buy stuff from Walmart to keep my life going really nicely," he said. "I can live here. My children's children's children can live here on what this land can produce on a perpetual basis."

The structures being built are modest and rough, with buildings each smaller than 200 square feet. So far, Safe Haven has outlined a main community area and started construction on a kitchen, storage room and shed. The roughly crafted buildings have yet to be polished into completed structures. One structure's walls are made of tubes filled with sand. Another is carved into a hill, and another is made from clay mixed with hay.

Each building serves as a teaching ground for anyone wanting to see multiple building techniques for sustainable houses — all in the same place.

"The more people that know how to do it, the more people that are awake and know it's possible, the more we can pressure our institutions to change the rules," said Renee Shaw, part of the Safe Haven group.

Sterling and Cheri Allan plan to build the community's first home on a five-acre section of the property. The Allans moved from the comfort of their suburban home in Eagle Mountain to build their own self-sustaining home. The planned three-bedroom house will house the couple and their four children, complete with a home office and playroom for the kids.

And just because it's sustainable doesn't mean the family plans to go without amenities like television or Internet. Sterling Allan runs a website from home dedicated to green technologies.

"Hopefully, by us doing this, it will make it easier for people to build green in Utah," Cheri Allan said.

But sustainable building isn't necessarily cheaper, Sterling Allan said.

"It's extremely labor intensive and slow," he said. "What I like about it is that it's honest."

Modern building methods, on the other hand, "use slave labor and rape the earth," he said.

Challenging building codes that weren't meant to support sustainable practices has been a learning experience for the Safe Haven community. Torgersen, the driving force in getting the city to approve building permits, spends his spare time explaining what sustainable living means to city and county officials. He also finds the loopholes that are making construction in the village possible.

"People like me research the building codes and find out how to do things the right way," Torgersen said. "We can build all these legally."

The system isn't meant to support sustainable living practices, he said. Even freely collecting rainwater wasn't possible until July 1 under Utah law.

Now, Safe Haven residents will have to convince state and county officials that filtering the water with sand and charcoal is acceptable.

The Allans and Torgersen are hoping to change the way legislators and Americans think about modern life and what is sustainable.

"Let's simplify," Torgersen said. "We've gotten way too complicated."

e-mail: gbarker@desnews.com

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