Green Acres

Green Acres

St. Thomas, Mike
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Wayne Freeman leans back at the outdoor table, wearing sunglasses in the bright August afternoon. He looks relaxed for a man whose brainchild is on the verge of breaking national ground just a few miles west of Bozeman. Freeman is the director of landscape architecture at CTA Architecture Engineering, the largest and oldest architectural firm in Montana. His project, called ViaVerda Ranch, is slated for development on a 350-acre parcel between Amsterdam and Churchill. The community, which will extend south and west from the intersection of Amsterdam and Churchill Roads, will be a first for Montana—a strictly green, planned subdivision. “There’s nothing in the country that’s quite comparable.” ViaVerda Ranch, he claims, aims to be the “greenest subdivision in the U.S.”

A traditionally developed 350-acre parcel, Freeman notes, would contain 636 units. ViaVerda has 372. Half of the development’s area is preserved as open space, and each of the community's units overlooks open land. Some open space will be used for growing food—there’s an organic farm and farmer’s market on site, as well as numerous 400-square-foot plots reserved for community gardening—and 12 miles of trails will snake through the development.

Homebuyers must sign an agreement to live by the community's environmental standards, such as limiting water use. Though 50 acres of the village’s open space will be regularly watered, each owner is limited to 2,000 square feet of irrigated lawn. Households must pay a fine if they exceed their predetermined water-use limit (the penalties will support non-profit groups). The community's policy encourages contractors to buy local products and requires them to use sustainable building materials. Though the policy is yet to be finalized, Freeman suggests that ViaVerda will set high environmental standards and encourage landowners to "go greener." For example, ViaVerda would ideally generate its power on-site, but legal restrictions prevent this. Instead, CTA urges builders must use solar panels and other natural-energy harvesters, and several large wind turbines in the development with power ViaVerda's nonresidential buildings. Freeman hopes to offer “green tags” to the residents, which would provide incentives for buying power directly from the Judith Gap wind farm. Also, the project's developers have developed a "ride-share" program, modeled after Portland's system, and are working to offer incentives to homebuyers interested in purchasing hybrid vehicles from Ressler Toyota.

ViaVerda's eco-friendly features also include a recent development in wastewater treatment: the membrane bioreactor (MBR). Though the new technology sounds like something from Star Trek, the concept is simple: to recycle water. The MBR will treat used water so that it can be returned to the community in the form of secondary potable water. The bioreactor will inject half of the treated water into ViaVerda's aquifer and use the rest for lawn irrigation. It will be the first use of MBR technology in Montana; in fact, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality will draft its MBR regulations around this project.

Contrary to many other subdivisions in the Bozeman area, ViaVerda Ranch focuses on creating a mixed-income environment. Single-family residences will share space with townhouses and a few commercial buildings, and the village will also house a retirement community. Though most buyers will understandably share a passion for the environment, Freeman notes that ViaVerda's diverse development will draw all types—families, individuals, retirees, those buying a second home—to the sustainable community. The developers recently submitted the preliminary plat for the project, and they are awaiting response from Gallatin County. CTA hopes to sell lots in fall of 2007.

Freeman notes that, in addition to its strictly environmental aims, a major goal of the project is proving that sustainable development and profitable development are not mutually exclusive. And if it succeeds, environmentally conscious but wary (or stingy) developers no longer have an excuse for wasteful construction. Freeman hopes that ViaVerda Ranch encourages "other developers [to] jump on board not because it is the right thing to do but because it is profitable."

Freeman, a lifelong conservationist, has directed two land trusts in the Midwest, but has never felt better about a project. Never before—in his work, in Montana, in the country—has such an environmentally conscious development been built. With ViaVerda Ranch, he says, “I can go to sleep at night.” Though the development showcases the latest in green technology, Freeman notes that it more importantly marks a return to “simpler ideals,” to conservation and responsibility. Residents, he smiles can simply “live green, relatively off-the-grid, and in a gorgeous place.”
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