One county's misgivings over not-so-ordinary housing

  • Earthship architect Michael Reynolds

  • Michael Reynolds designs Earthships in New Mexico

    Singeli Agnew/Taos News

Taos County, N.M. - Architect and developer Michael Reynolds doesn't usually lock the gate to his property west of Taos, but ever since county officials drove out to inspect his work site, he's been viewing outsiders with a wary eye.

Recently a county code enforcement officer had red-tagged several houses under construction, and just after my visit, the officer returned with the sheriff to issue Reynolds a warrant to appear in court for violating the earlier stop-work order.

"Are they going to come with the tanks soon or what?" asks Reynolds, who seems hardly able to believe his bad luck. After all, he's been building houses in Taos County for 25 years.

But these are not just any houses, and Reynolds is not just any architect. He is the inventor, copyright-holder and chief proselytizer of Earthships, half-buried houses made from recycled tires, tin cans, glass and concrete. Sun-powered and energy-efficient, they are designed to be fully off the grid, which means free from commercial electrical power and phone lines and maintained roads. Comparable in construction costs to conventional homes, the dwellings collect rain, channel used household water into banana-tree planters and face south for maximum solar gain.

Here at the bottom of a dusty gravel pit off Route 64, the houses resemble bunkers more than anything. Showing them off, Reynolds almost forgets his legal troubles. "This is a unit we call the Nest," says the wiry 52-year-old as he points to a small, curved, concrete-and-tire compound. At 640 square feet, it is the Volkswagen of Earthships, and it's selling like hotcakes.

"We put in them everything we've learned. It's on the level of a mobile home, but it requires no heating, no cooling, it makes its own power, it's got hot and cold running water and sewage that'll produce plants.

"And we're reclaiming a gravel pit," gushes Reynolds, whose company, Solar Survival Architecture, sells plans, produces books, videos and Internet materials, teaches seminars and, finally, constructs the buildings.

Reynolds has built them everywhere, including Bolivia, Japan and hundreds of south-facing hillsides throughout the intermountain West. Since 1990, he has developed three Earthship communities with approximately 45 homes in the Delaware-sized northern New Mexico county.

His most recent, the gravel pit's Greater World Community a few miles west of the Rio Grande gorge, is slated for 80 to 100 Earthships.

But the communities' self-proclaimed independence - from county oversight as well as from the utility grid - has riled local officials and many citizens, including some environmentalists and former followers of the architect.

"As far as we're concerned, Mr. Reynolds has created three illegal subdivisions," says Taos County Planning Director Dave DiCicco. "He's violated the New Mexico Subdivision Act, the Taos land use regulations and the Uniform Building Code.

"This is a large-scale profit-making development," continues DiCicco, "and we have authority under our land-use regulations to evaluate him as a major developer." Until four years ago, Taos County had only an intermittent planning department, and permits were issued by the state. Since then, the county largely overlooked Reynolds, says the planner. "This isn't the wild West anymore, and we can't afford to be casual," he says, citing the burgeoning 4 percent annual growth rate around the resort town.

DiCicco wants Reynolds, like all developers, to provide flood and soil data, a water-use assessment and a road-access disclosure, among other things, for review by the local planning commission.

"Any time you are talking about bringing 100 families to the valley, no matter what type of house they live in, it's going to have an impact on the county," he says. "Mr. Reynolds' intentions are good, but we have to follow through and see if his experimentation bears scrutiny. The same law applies to everybody."

Until Reynolds complies with the subdivision review, DiCicco's office won't issue building permits for new Earthships on his property.

As is evident from the bustle in the gravel pit, however, Reynolds has no intention of complying with the stop-work order. "These are not subdivisions because we are not selling land," he asserts. Reynolds owns Greater World's 650 acres and sells his members, who currently number 25, the right to build houses there. The plan, he says, is to eventually turn the property over to the members, who will then own it communally.

In June, Reynolds and seven home-builders sued Taos County in district court to release their building permits. Judge Stan Read heard the case in Raton Aug. 23, and at press time the plaintiffs were awaiting his decision. In the meantime, they're not slowing down.

"We're going to keep going until it becomes like Waco, Texas, and we have a big scene," says Reynolds. "I can see how that stuff happens. In a state that has designated several thousand acres for testing weapons of destruction to humanity, can't we allow 650 acres to be allowed for testing methods of human survival? I'll go to jail for that, I'll die for that."

Texas refugees Jim Wilson and Bonnie McNain, who are building their Earthship despite the stop-work order, are perplexed and disappointed by the county's reaction.

"We came to Taos because it's supposed to be alternative." Now they say if they'd known about Reynolds' problems with the county, they would have looked elsewhere to build. As it stands, they and the others who are violating county law on Reynolds' advice could face fines up to $500 a day and misdemeanor charges.

Many residents of Taos are not sympathetic with the architect's plight, in part because of some ill-will following his first land development, called REACH, which stands for Rural Earthship Alternative Community Habitat. A dozen Earthships situated on steep slopes a thousand feet above the tiny town of Valdez north of Taos, REACH has spurred resentment among locals.

"In my opinion, Michael Reynolds' project above Valdez is the greatest violation of land ever done in the Taos Valley," says local activist Geoff Bryce. Bryce, who serves on the local acequia (ditch) commission, calls the project an eyesore that has resulted in erosion, access problems and a deep cultural wound in the largely Hispanic community.

"You can see that glass and stuff shining from a great distance and I think it's ugly and inappropriate," says Valdez postmaster Connie Espinoza. Agrees Beverly Armijo, who caters Mexican food, "Reynolds is trying to save Mother Earth and all that, but he's exploiting the rest of us. If we're forced to abide by regulations, so should he."

The biggest concern among valley residents is the same one that has plagued resort areas all over the West: population growth. "Any way you slice it," says Fabi Romero, who chairs the local citizens' planning commission, "Reynolds is impacting the county by bringing all these people in. He's impacting our roads, our schools, our water, air quality and our land. He needs to own up to that."

REACH Earthship owner Joey Townsend says she regrets that Reynolds' development was not reviewed by the county. "I have no road access to my Earthship," she says. "I have a gully. I've already replaced the transmission on my truck just trying to get there. If he'd had to have more engineering skills or a better ability to read the landscape, this wouldn't have happened. Subdivision regulations might have protected people like me."

But Reynolds argues that an Earthship is its own infrastructure, and complying with subdivision requirements would put the price of land out of reach of many of his members. Cheryl Powell, who is constructing her Nest in the gravel pit, paid only $3,000 for her building site. "It was like buying a parking space," says the recently divorced bookkeeper. She is willing to put up with bad roads and the promise of future title to the land. "For me, it was the only affordable choice. I am defiantly continuing to build because I feel it is morally right to provide shelter for myself."

Florence Williams writes from Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

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