Sustainable Settings can’t compost way out of toilet issue |

Sustainable Settings can’t compost way out of toilet issue

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

ASPEN – Sustainable toilets at Sustainable Settings have ironically thrown a wrench into the farm’s attempt to comply with health-code requirements.

Brook Le Van, executive director of Sustainable Settings, thought installing composting toilets at the farm and learning center outside of Carbondale would be sufficient to satisfy Pitkin County’s requirement for restroom facilities. That has not quite been the case.

The two sides have been at odds for three years over the toilet issue, prompting a two-hour meeting Wednesday between Sustainable Settings’ board of directors and Pitkin County commissioners that failed to produce a compromise.

Rather, sympathetic county commissioners told Le Van that Sustainable Settings’ ability to host school groups, adult workshops and other programs remains limited, based on the capacity of the two composting toilets that were installed last summer, along with a hand-washing facility.

“No matter how much we support and appreciate and love what you do, you still have to comply,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield.

“The health issues are very real,” added Commissioner Rachel Richards.

Commissioners essentially directed Sustainable Settings in December 2007 to cease most of its programming because there were no public restroom facilities available at the farming and ranching operation, located about 4 miles south of Carbondale off Highway 133.

The Sustainable Settings store, where its agricultural products are sold, could continue to operate, but visits by school groups and other programs were suspended.

The board of directors subsequently put the 240-acre property up for sale, intending to move the operation to a place where, Le Van suggested, costly regulatory requirements wouldn’t threaten its viability.

The real estate market subsequently tanked, the property was taken off the market, and the board agreed last spring that Sustainable Settings would stay put. A commercial well was drilled to comply with a county requirement, and the two composting toilets were installed at a cost of about $10,000 – the most the nonprofit could afford to do, Le Van said.

And, the composting toilets meld with the nonprofit’s sustainable philosophy, he noted. Having a vault toilet pumped, and the waste trucked elsewhere, would not.

“Are we complying? We thought we were. Now we’re finding out, well, we’re limited,” Le Van said.

Based on the manufacturer’s input on the toilets’ capacity, Sustainable Settings remains limited in the size and frequency of groups it can host. Gatherings like community potlucks are not allowed. Neither is camping by visitors.

And, because the toilets are in an unheated building and the hand-washing facility was an outdoor affair, they essentially don’t work in the winter months, leaving Sustainable Settings with functioning facilities from roughly May through September or October.

But the farm’s representatives suggested Wednesday that the toilets can be emptied regularly, and the contents moved elsewhere at the farm to complete the composting process, meaning they can function all year long and with unlimited capacity.

“It’s a litter box, basically,” Le Van said.

State regulations allow for composting of waste elsewhere at the farm, according to Carla Ostberg, county environmental health manager, but that plan assumes that the composting process would occur first in the toilets. If the state is OK with bypassing that step in the process, commissioners indicated they’d agree to it, as well.

Le Van conceded Sustainable Settings needs public restroom facilities, but the cost of installing them is a hurdle. He told commissioners he’d like to work with Ostberg on determining exactly what will be required to meet the needs of Sustainable Settings’ future vision, which includes a new barn and a dairy barn, as well as a commercial kitchen where farm products will be made.

The operation currently includes livestock, poultry and crop production, and the farm now has nine dairy cows that will provide members in a co-op venture with fresh milk, he said. Similarly, the farm has members who pre-pay for a share of the organic produce.

Sustainable Settings had been hosting about 9,000 visitors annually before the county ordered aspects of the operation shut down. Visitation dropped by about half, Le Van said. The drop-off had a financial impact, as some of the programs involved a fee paid to the nonprofit by participants, he said.

The farm also hosts a couple of large fundraising events (with portable toilets) each year, and Le Van asked commissioners to exempt the nonprofit from the county’s special events permitting process, which involves time and expense. Commissioners declined. All special events are required to get a permit, said Commissioner George Newman, refusing to set a precedent by letting Sustainable Settings out of the mandate.

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