County grounds Earthships Homes: Stop-work orders in an arty part of New Mexico has halted construction of more environmentally friendly Earthship houses, built from recycled materials.

Sun Journal

November 03, 1997|By Carla Crowder | Carla Crowder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

EL PRADO, N.M. -- Construction on Karin Payne's dream home has stopped.

No more hammers pounding dirt into tires. It's been weeks since an empty Bud Light can was screwed into a mud wall.

Payne's dream home is a desert Earthship, crafted from recycled materials with power only from the sun and running water only from the clouds. "My goal was to have zero impact on the exploitation of the earth or of people," says Payne, 39, a refugee from West Coast yuppiedom. A baseball cap shields her eyes from the sun and her ponytail from the wind as she sits cross-legged in the dirt looking over blueprints.

That's about all the work she legally can do on her sloping pile of tires and earth. Environmentally friendly homes built from trash may promote human harmony with the planet, but they also promote tensions and lawsuits with the Taos County Planning Department, which in September issued stop-work orders on seven Earth-ships in the Rio Grande Valley.

The high-desert town of Taos, brimming with artists and hippies, would seem a likely home port for Earthships. It already is home to K-TAO, the world's most powerful solar radio station, reaching into five counties with power equivalent to 50,000 watts.

Commander of the Earthships is Michael Reynolds, a 52-year-old enviro-architect from Kentucky, who settled in the area in 1968. His designs have spread Earthships from Africa to Atlanta.

In Taos County, he has developed three communities of them: STAR (Social Transformation Alternative Republic) and REACH (Rural Earthship Alternative Community Habitat) hug the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The newest is Greater World, smack up against U.S. 64. Sometimes motorists drop in for a $5 tour featuring a promotional video and a look at the bunker-like buildings that seem to hatch from the earth's surface.

Reynolds is an excitable man wearing black jeans, fleece vest and a long, disorderly hairdo. He has devoted most of his adult life to improving the Earthship design. With a zealot's enthusiasm, and now with Earthship e-mail and a World Wide Web site, he's sharing his gospel.

His homes are made from the stuff of landfills. Concrete-clad tires provide thermal mass to hold heat in the winter and keep it out in the summer. For about the cost of a conventional home, Earthships are swathed in dirt crafted into cozy Southwestern-style interiors. No power lines or phone lines are needed, and the sewage system is self-contained. Water from the toilet is treated and released into a jungle of landscaping inside and out.

"We harvested 60 bananas the other day," Reynolds boasts.

Individual Earthships have gone up all over the world -- Australia, Mexico and Japan. But the three communities -- about 50 homes total -- outside Taos are Reynolds' laboratories. For example, a drought last summer that forced some Earthship folks to haul water from town led to bigger roofs and cisterns to catch more rain.

His dispute with zoning authorities in Taos illustrates a New West paradox: Newcomers are drawn by the region's relaxed culture and addictive natural beauty, but their presence crowds the wide-open spaces they came for.

A space-age sand castle listing into the hillside with a giant greenhouse in front may be innovative and environmentally sensitive. But to Taos County officials, a flotilla of them among 650 acres of rolling, sage-covered desert looks like a subdivision, and Reynolds looks like a subdivider.

Reynolds argues that he's not selling or leasing land, so he doesn't need Taos County to approve the plats as subdivisions. What he sells, he says, are memberships. Buyers pay $3,000 to $6,000 to build on a site. His company, Solar Survival Architecture, sells blueprints for Earthships for $1,500 to $9,000. For around $150,000, Reynolds' contractors can build a split-level home, or the buyers can save about $45,000 by doing the plaster and interior work themselves.

Reynolds will own all the land until all the sites are sold. Then the property will be communally owned by the Earthship dwellers who have built there. Reynolds compares it to a country club.

What's more, he says, he doesn't need county approval because he doesn't need infrastructure -- water or roads or utilities -- from the county. And, he says, all members must sign an agreement that they will not expect such amenities, should Earthship living turn grittier than expected.

"That's why this [dispute with the county] is blowing me away," says Reynolds. "I've been doing this 25 years. I had to fight to get tires approved. I had to fight to get sewage and power and all these things approved, and I won, and I did it, and I got all these approvals, and now they're getting me on a technicality that is illegal."

Reynolds' latest legal victory came in August, when a state judge ruled that he is not a subdivider.

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