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Future looking dim for power-line foes

Hastings Mesa - On this shoulder of the jagged Sneffels Range in the San Juan Mountains, the sun, the wind, fire - and occasionally propane - power and heat the homes of the intrepid folks who live here.

But an alternating current of controversy now runs through this off-the-grid and off-the-beaten-path mesa.

Up here at about 9,000 feet, where winds blow fierce and snow drifts to rooftops, most residents have long bucked the trend of new subdivisions clamoring for electricity.

Instead, they have turned their backs on grid power.

So far, they have kept out all but a few tendrils of new electric lines on the northern fringes of Hastings Mesa, but the mesa's no-power-to-the-people days are numbered.

Enough residents with enough money have obtained a permit and contracted to bring electricity through the heart of this mesa that stretches 12 panoramic miles from Dallas Divide to Sawpit. Ironically, it's just up the road from Telluride, where the world's first alternating-current electric plant was built 115 years ago.

To the pro-grid people, electricity promises plenty of hot water to wash diapers, an end to the sometimes costly maintenance of solar panels and wind generators, the ability to build larger dwellings, and the prospect of an increase in property values.

To those in the off-the-grid camp, electricity will bring light pollution, a more wasteful mentality and ostentatious houses that are showcases rather than homes.

The off-grid folks say they fear that funky and eclectic Hastings Mesa will become just like all the other upscale mesas in the orbit of Telluride, even though Hastings is isolated 3 miles up a steep coil of narrow dirt road from Colorado 145 and up a no-winter-maintenance road off Colorado 62.

"We thought with our social consciousness we could be a force strong enough to hold off people who want to come up here with power," said John Janus, whose small, round, stone-and- wood home sits like a cupcake next to a solar-panel-covered lean-to under Gray Head peak.

Janus' home is also at the crux of the power struggle.

The new $300,000, 4.75-mile underground electric line that was approved this summer and is slated for construction in the spring will run along the road in front of his home. Behind it, the Old Elam Ranch subdivision spreads across a ridge. It's the only subdivision in Colorado with a covenant that requires homeowners to power their homes with the sun.

To the east, the Mystic Valley subdivision will be on the grid when the line is finished.

Neighbor Dalen Stevens formed Balanced Power Cooperative LLC, a group of 22 residents who are paying to bring a buried power line across the mesa. Stevens, a potter who was opposed to grid power when he moved to the mesa from Boulder in the late 1980s, said he is tired of driving several miles to an electrified shed to fire his pottery.

"I think a number of people have changed their opinions," Stevens said. "Circumstances have changed."

When Stevens moved his family to the mesa, homes numbered in the dozens. Now there are about 184 dwellings in a number of subdivisions. Land and home prices here still lag far behind the other on-the-grid mesas around Telluride. Homes on Hastings range from about $650,000 to $3.5 million, with most on the the more modest end. Land goes for about $5,800 an acre, compared with as much as $22,000 an acre on some of the nearby trophy home-dotted mesas.

Hastings homeowners like to point out that they are not back-to-the-earth lantern burners. They might all share their acreages with coyotes and elk, and many may favor organic food, but they represent a wide range of economic classes and social outlooks.

Residents include longtime ranchers, Telluride working folks, a metropolitan orchestra conductor, a successful inventor, an international art dealer, a retired cop and several actors. There is also a young man who lives in a yurt, a round tent-like structure, and doesn't own a car. He rides a bicycle 15 miles to Telluride, winter and summer.

"It's not like we're a bunch of old hippies, although some of us are," said Kris Holstrom, who runs an organic farm in a solar greenhouse near her solar-powered home.

The off-the-gridders also emphasize that they live just like on-the-grid folks, except that the wind and sun power the necessities of everyday life.

"We're not hard-core. We're living like you are. We simply don't have an electric bill at the end of the month," said Janus, who like other residents, has toasters, computers, VCRs, refrigerators and stereos.

Holstrom, Janus and other solar proponents surveyed other homeowners last winter when it became apparent off-the-grid was going to be switched to on. Only nine returned surveys that expressed objections to the idea of creating zoning that would exclude on-the- grid power.

But banning power turned out to be impossible. Not enough contiguous homeowners could agree. The pro-power folks are spread throughout the mesa, Janus said.

Janus said he believes a majority of Hastings residents still want to stay off the grid, but San Miguel County associate planner Karen Henderson said she believes it's actually become a "small outspoken group."

"More and more people are living up there year-round, and having the amenity of electricity makes a huge difference, especially with kids," she said.

The Balanced Power partnership has promised to lessen the impact of electricity for their mesa neighbors by shielding transformer boxes and restricting outdoor lights.

That doesn't appease the no-power people.

"Just because we don't see it doesn't mean it won't change everything," Holstrom said.

The no-power people still avidly preach the joys of each home having its own solar power plant, but they are resigned. They say they feel powerless. They also say they already see their once close-knit, potlucking- and picnicking-together community breaking apart over kilowatts.

Some of those who want to bring power to the mesa refuse to talk about it because they fear retribution. Last year, when power lines were brought into the north end of the mesa, construction equipment was vandalized.

The no-power folks grow emotional over the fact that losing the mesa's off- the-grid status at this time is particularly galling. They cite the threat of a disruption of the Middle East oil supply and warnings about an eventual depletion of domestic reserves.

"Here we are as a test bed - a research and development place for the world - an actual practical application of sustainability in a harsh environment," Janus said. "If we can do it here, it can be done anywhere."

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