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Tryon farm dreams collide with reality

Collective committed to sustainability finds itself on wrong side of city, state policies - and wants to change them
by: JIM CLARK, Members of the Tryon Life Community Farm had to buy toilets from a Canadian company at $1,700 apiece after they found that state plumbing codes didn’t allow the design for ones they planned to build themselves, for their shared bathroom facility.

When the members of the Tryon Life Community Farm sat down to finalize their experiment in sustainable urban livability, they made some disturbing discoveries.

For starters, their communal living arrangement already violated city housing policies. Although never enforced, the city says only six unrelated adults can live in a single residence - far fewer than the 17 adults living in the two large buildings on the 7-acre parcel off of Southwest Boones Ferry Road and Coronado Street.

The group also realized the city will charge it around $20,000 to review and approve its proposed master land-use plan, a prohibitive amount considering that it is still paying off more than $750,000 in short- and long-term loans used to buy the property.

Even when the plan is approved, the group will have to raise another $6,000 to pay for a conditional-use permit because no city zoning category allows for the mix of residential, farming, light industrial and educational programs it hopes to offer on the property.

But even then, the group also discovered that city and state policies do not allow many of the green building projects it hopes to carry out, ranging from custom-built composting toilets to large straw-and-mud buildings to draining their bathtubs into their gardens.

'If we're having to jump through all these hoops to create a more sustainable community, so are a lot of other people who don't have as many resources as we do,' said founding member Brenna Bell, a lawyer who also served on the steering committee of Mayor Tom Potter's community vision project.

So after talking with a number of like-minded people and organizations in and around the metropolitan area, the group is launching a project it calls ReCode Portland to examine public policies that inhibit environmental experimentation.

Partners include activist and neighborhood groups such as Architects Without Borders, the Portland Permaculture Guild and Southeast Uplift, the coalition office working with Southeast Portland neighborhood associations.

The goal, according to member J. Brush, is to eliminate barriers to innovative small-scale green building projects.

'The wheels of the bureaucracy can turn slowly, but we don't have a lifetime to solve all these things,' Brush said.

The participants already have drafted a three-page list of suggested changes in city and state building, regulatory and land-use policies. Those and other ideas will be discussed at a public meeting set for 7 p.m. Jan. 17 at the Laughing Horse Bookstore, 12 N.E. 10th Ave.

'They have identified a number of constraints in the state building code that have hindered certain sustainable development practices,' said Brendan Finn, chief of staff to Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who is in charge of the Office of Sustainable Development.

Big projects emphasized

The Portland metropolitan region has a national reputation as a leader in the field of sustainable development, winning praise from environmental and planning groups for such efforts as the urban growth boundary - which is intended to preserve farmland - the mass transit system, and policies that have encouraged green building practices in the rapidly growing Pearl District and South Waterfront areas.

The farm members praised these efforts but noted that they do not necessarily address people who want to make small changes in their homes or neighborhoods. Many Portlanders already are committed to sustainable living, from politically active bicyclists to people who have converted their cars to run on biodiesel or who are installing rain barrels in their backyards.

'The politicians and policymakers here are very committed to sustainability,' Brush said, 'but what is anyone doing to help the people who want to experiment with their homes, or maybe a group of neighbors that want to do a project together?'

When they began researching some of the projects that they wanted to do on their property, the farm members began to realize that city and state policies are tailored to large-scale developers.

Although a number of the new buildings in South Waterfront are designed to reuse bath water for toilets, the members discovered that state Department of Environmental Quality rules prevent them from draining their bath water directly into their gardens.

'I spent all summer carrying buckets of bath water out to the garden,' Bell said. 'It's good exercise, but not necessarily good policy.'

Farm pops for $1,700 toilets

Likewise, farm members were stymied in their efforts to build composting toilets that would allow them to convert human waste to fertilizer, a practice used in developing countries around the world.

They originally intended to build on-site toilets that would separate urine from solid waste in recycled barrels that could be swapped out as needed.

But because state plumbing codes do not allow for that, they instead bought preapproved composting toilets made by Envirolet, a Canadian company, for around $1,700 each - even though they believe site-built composting toilets would be more efficient.

'Not everyone who wants a compositing toilet can pay $1,700 for one,' Bell said. 'Even talking about human waste is a big taboo, but there ought to be a way for people to experiment on their own property, at the least.'

There still are many hoops the farm must jump through before it can effectively argue it should be allowed to conduct such experiments, however.

Because of the wide range of programs the farm members hope to offer, city land-use policies require the members to prepare and submit a master plan for their property - the same process required of such large institutions as Oregon Health and Science University.

The complex document requires numerous city inspections and certifications, each with its own application fee. After that, the farm will need a variance because some of its proposed programs are not allowed in residential areas, which is how it is currently zoned.

Farm members estimate the total costs for the plan and variance at around $26,000.

'Because we're a nonprofit, we might qualify for some grants or discounts to reduce the cost, but average people trying to do this on their own are facing the same costs,' Bell said.

Dream for yoga retreat fades

Even with the challenges ahead, the Tryon Life Community Farm already has accomplished a lot, beginning with preserving the acreage in the face of encroaching development.

Situated next to Tryon Creek State Park, the property was purchased in 1977 by a family that intended to create a yoga retreat. After converting the existing farmhouse and garage into apartments, the project ran out of steam and the units eventually were rented by environmental activists and supporters of organic farming.

When the family decided to sell the property in 2005, a developer quickly bought an option, intending to tear down the existing structure and build 23 new homes. But the residents fought back with a public campaign to save the property by creating an educational model for sustainable urban agriculture.

The family agreed to sell the property for that purpose for around $1.5 million, including closing costs.

The residents and supporters raised the money through a series of gifts and loans. The Portland City Council even supported the project, buying a conservation easement between the farm and state park with $200,000 from the Office of Sustainable Development.

The title to the land is held by the Oregon Sustainable Agriculture Land Trust, with a 99-year management lease to the farm and Cedar Moon, a residential community whose members live on the property. They still owe about $700,000 in bank loans and around $55,000 in short-term personal loans.

It's been a busy two years

Since the property was purchased in January 2006, farm members have been working on several projects. They and other environmental activists have built a number of new buildings, including the composting toilet restroom and an experimental outdoor stove that routes heat through a bench.

More recently, the farm has begun serving as a satellite classroom for Shining Star Waldorf School in Northeast Portland. Called the Mother Earth Kindergarten, it is intended to allow preschool children to learn about nature in an outdoor environment.

Now, with their work on the ReCode Portland project, the farm members are hoping to encourage sustainable development throughout the region by prompting a re-examination of some of the obstacles they have encountered.

'Some of these changes can be done on the city level, and some need to be addressed by the state. And some of the problems are simply because what we want to do is so new, there aren't any rules yet,' Bell said.

To learn more about the Tryon Life Community Farm and its projects, visit www.tryonfarm.org .