Sustainable Settings proving unsustainable |

Sustainable Settings proving unsustainable

Charles Agar
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

CARBONDALE ” Call it a failed experiment in Roaring Fork Valley sustainability, but officials at the Carbondale nonprofit Sustainable Settings are threatening to leave.

Despite growing from 5,700 visitors from area schools in 2006 to more than 9,000 in 2007, and a booming business in organic produce on the 244-acre ranch, local regulations and the high cost of operating in Pitkin County are driving him out, said Brook LeVan, the organization’s founder. Sustainable Settings is a nonprofit focused on education and building model, sustainable communities.

“These things build, of course,” he said.

LeVan said he plans to sell the land at a profit and relocate, preferably in the Roaring Fork Valley ” but not in Pitkin County.

His decision comes after he failed to provide county commissioners with master plan updates. The board of commissioners said the ranch, which is zoned as a public facility, did not have adequate toilets for guests or hand-washing stations for kids who pet farm animals.

LeVan agreed to the make the improvements, including a solar-compost toilet. But that didn’t stop the board from closing the ranch to the public in December until LeVan could get everything up to speed ” something LeVan estimates will cost the nonprofit some $150,000.

“They’ve got a tough job and they have to deal with an overly regulated place. It’s not their fault,” LeVan said of the county board. “It’s not a personal thing at all; we know we just can’t continue here.”

From humble origins as part of the Aspen Community School in Woody Creek in 1997, LeVan and his wife, Rose, bought the Carbondale ranch for $2.35 million in 2001, thanks in large part to a contribution from Peter and Adam Lewis of Aspen.

LeVan hoped to continue to expand the business, he said.

“We went to the county to start working out some details so we could build our barn and dairy,” LeVan said. “As soon as the light shines on your place, they see what’s going on.”

The list of required improvements kept piling up at a February county commissioners meeting, LeVan said, not to mention further allegations from Crystal River Caucus neighbors about illegal earth moving and traffic issues on the ranch.

LeVan called an emergency board meeting last week, and the group decided to sell the ranch and find another site.

“We love this place, but we had to do what’s right for the organization,” LeVan said, adding that being land rich and cash poor just wasn’t working. “It can’t happen in Pitkin County.”

LeVan said he’s talking with realty agents about selling the Carbondale land and finding a new site. He said he does not yet know the ranch’s listing price.

“I look down the road and I can’t build that barn and provide milk from the community,” LeVan said. And the recent cancellation of all education activity was a tough blow to ranch operations.

“It was a tough decision,” LeVan said. “All the staff know by now, and all of them are taking different tracks.”

Ranch staff will bring in this year’s crop and the ranch store will remain open until the land sells, LeVan said.

“We’ll be around, but we’ll be a fraction of what we normally do,” LeVan said.

The Carbondale ranch is protected under a conservation easement, but there are some limited development rights on the property and a single-family home could go up on the site in the future, LeVan said.

“It’s just a great place, but you’ve got to have money to stay here,” LeVan said.

And instead of suffering as a “land-rich” nonprofit, LeVan will sell the ranch for land elsewhere, he said, in a “less-regulated county,” according to a press release.

“We’re doing what we need to do. We’re here to build a lifeboat,” LeVan said, adding that the threat of peak oil or global crisis makes the models and studies of “smarter living” at a new ranch site very important. “We think what we are doing is urgent, but we can’t build this model here.”