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Habitat explores local eco-village concept

A potential Habitat eco-village in River Falls might include geo-thermal heating, solar panels and many other green development characteristics.

A simple question led the St. Croix Valley Habitat for Humanity to investigate in earnest the development of an eco-village housing concept, possibly for a five-acre city-owned site on Apollo Road south of Maple Street.

SCVHFH Director Amy Muzzy said the concept mostly began with her asking, "What does the word 'affordable' mean?"

She says the non-profit, Christian housing ministry in Pierce and St. Croix counties must stay true to its mission: "Helping our community to partner with people in need of affordable home ownership by enabling them to acquire simple, decent, homes and improving their lives by surrounding them with people who want to live and share God's purposeful love and care."

Signs advertising $180,000 homes as affordable got Muzzy wondering why energy-saving homes seem furthest from reach to those who need it most? Most Habitat homes fall into the $80,000-$100,000 range but don't include elements that save homeowners energy and upkeep costs in the long run.

Those thoughts eventually led to conversations with SCVHFH Board Member Kelly Cain, director of the St. Croix Institute for Sustainable Community Development, and with Mayor Don Richards, a proponent of energy conversation and "green" living.

"Then this whole village idea came down," Muzzy said.

As the board members began discussing the concept among themselves and potential partners, they found it hard to talk about without having a vision -- something on paper.

A $5,000 grant enabled the affiliate to get help with the concept and drawings of it from St. Croix Valley professionals Marc Putnam of Hudson-based Putnam Planning & Design and architect Richard Peterson of the Afton, Minn.,-based Sustainable Development Network & Exchange.

Muzzy said the grant gave Habitat the tools needed to share the vision.

SCVHFH asked the city in August last year if it was "OK" with the idea of Habitat developing a conceptual picture of how an eco-village would potentially fit into the Apollo Road site.

The City Council OK'd the exploration and the concept evolved. The local affiliate is now talking with city officials, firms in the green-building business and other potential partners.

Partners could mean progress

Concept drawings of the eco-village depict it as a densely-built 33-unit housing development that could include walkable streets; solar panels on the rooftops; geothermal heating systems; shared or "clustered" utilities; water re-use for flushing toilets or irrigation; rainwater management; some energy produced in the village via solar panels, micro wind turbines, or biofuels; and on-site food production.

If it happens, the complex would likely develop one cluster or phase at a time.

Cain defines eco-village as: "A planned community that implements sustainable development techniques to improve the quality of life for its inhabitants and to maintain a clean healthy environment."

The conceptual drawings include information about the five fundamentals of an eco-village.

  • Smart town planning creates communities with less paved surfaces, minimized drainage and a smaller footprint while also preserving the site's ecology.
  • On-site utility management helps improve efficiency in usage of water, power and heating technology.
  • Proximity provides increased access to goods and services; eco-villages encourage "adjacencies."
  • On-site food production leads to improved diet and lower food costs.
  • Compact, energy-efficient, fireproof housing with roof design to accommodate solar panels.

    "This really evolved into a whole big picture," Muzzy said.

    She said there are a lot of good opportunities for green-building grants and that through the right partnerships, the board thinks the eco-village concept is possible. With the exception of grants, SCVHFH doesn't expect taxpayer money to be used if the project happens.

    Muzzy said partnerships are what enable Habitat homes to get built -- with future homeowners, individuals and communities, corporations and small businesses, local and federal government entities, churches and volunteer organizations, national and international Habitat affiliates...

    The director emphasizes that Habitat homes are not a giveaway. They're primarily a partnership, and homeowners must work hundreds of hours plus be able to pay the internally funded interest-free mortgage.

    A family selection committee analyzes applicants' need, ability to pay and willingness to partner. All homeowners' house payments go back into the organization.

    Muzzy said looking at a loan over its 20- or 30-year life.

    "The homeowner is going to pay back every, single penny that went into building the home," said Muzzy.

    SCVHFH intends to bring the eco-village concept to a City Council meeting soon to see if it agrees that discussions should continue to move things from the conceptual stage to planning.

    Cain said about the potential development: "It's an incremental process," adding that the Habitat's board is just starting to explore the financial and legal aspects.

    While Muzzy and the board can't say when it would all come together, SCVHFH Board President Carol Merriman said the concept won't hold for 5-10 years. SCVHFH needs to act within the next 2-3 years on the momentum that's been gathering recently.

    Cain, Merriman and Muzzy see affordable housing and the eco-village's energy efficiency as pluses for the city. And no matter what, they agree it's the board's job is to make sure it stays affordable for people who live in St. Croix or Pierce County and don't make a lot of money. "They'll either be affordable or we can't go there," said Cain about the potential homes.

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