Communities around the country find ways to care for Earth

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The Montpelier District Heat Plant uses biomass to heat the capitol and downtown district.
(Photo: Gary Hall Photography)


Sustainable living has gone mainstream. Whether they live in a LEED-certified vacation development in the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon or a quaint New England town with a goal of reducing carbon emissions, Americans celebrated Earth Day this year finding ways to better exist in harmony with the environment and their local communities.
Northeast: Montpelier, Vt.
Vermont's capital, founded in 1781, has 8,000 people living in 10 square miles. The tight-knit community has set an audacious goal: to be the first state capital in the nation using zero fossil fuels by 2030. "That makes us unique," says John Hollar, the mayor.
Key is the establishment of District Heat Montpelier, a wood-fired boiler system to heat the downtown business district and capitol complex. The system runs on locally sourced wood chips, which put off less threatening air emissions than oil. The city also works with the local power company, Green Mountain Power, to encourage the use of cold-climate heat pumps and other technologies to reduce heating costs.
Southeast: Serenbe, Chattahoochee Hills, Ga.
Steve Nygren, Atlanta restaurateur and developer, had a weekend house in the Chattahoochee Hills southwest of the city. He loved being removed from Atlanta's sprawl to enjoy a life close to nature. But he realized that, given Atlanta's growth, his retreat could eventually be destroyed. "The only way to save this rural (land) was to figure out how to develop it," he says.
He and Ray Anderson, the founder of carpet maker Interface, developed housing that appeals to high-end buyers, with land restrictions that preserve most of the 65,000-acre area for farming and recreational use.
Serenbe, the planned community with houses, condominiums, stores, restaurants and a 25-acre organic farm, has created local jobs, something scarce in many rural communities. "If we can do it in Atlanta, Ga., people can do it anywhere," Nygren says.
Southwest: Devine Legacy, Phoenix
Native American Connections jumped when Phoenix extended its light-rail system and acquired adjacent land to build an upscale housing development for low-income families. The result was Devine Legacy on Central, a 65-unit LEED Platinum-certified affordable housing community — the first in the U.S. to be recognized as such.
The building uses solar power, which offsets the cost of electricity. Window sensors shut off the heat and air conditioning when windows are open. Low-water flow Energy Star appliances and native desert landscaping round out the green amenities. The energy-efficient measures save tenants money — about $50 each month. "That savings can really stabilize a family," says Diana Yazzie Devine, CEO of Native American Connections.
Northwest: Mosier Creek Homes, Mosier, Ore.
The south bank of the Columbia River in Oregon is green and lush, and Mosier Creek Homes wants to keep it that way. In 2007, the developer constructed a 34-unit, eight-building townhome/condominium project that qualified for LEED Silver status. Owner Peter Erickson brought the project to the rural vacation area and the homes he and his team built along the river draw 69 percent less energy from the grid than standard homes.
Erickson finds customers are interested in environmentally friendly amenities but need to be educated. Higher upfront costs lead to money saved later, he says. "The energy consumption differential is a bottom-line pocketbook issue" that can save about $1,000 a year on the cost of living in a three-bedroom, three-bath townhouse, he says.
Midwest: Price Hill, Cincinnati
Price Hill is a conservative, working-class neighborhood in Cincinnati, close to downtown with a wealth of affordable housing options. It also has hippies and plenty of green living. In 1978, locals Jim and Eileen Schenk founded the Imago Earth Center to help connect to the natural world. The 16-acre nature preserve has open space and hiking trails and the grassroots group has evolved into a comprehensive organization that hosts concerts, classes and camps.
There is also the Enright Ridge Urban Ecovillage, which encourages community activism, green construction and gardening. Residents love that they don't have to move out to the country, says Chris Clements, Imago's executive director. "Even if you don't love the crazy hippies, you love that all these great things are happening on your street."

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