Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Off the grid, out of sight

If you ask Walter Webb, Evergreen Hills is the Beverly Hills of Albuquerque.

The 77-year-old retired welder and businessman was one of the first to move to the neighborhood roughly 25 years ago. He says the views, the tranquility and the wildlife are what’s so special about the area – a collection of majestic, mountainside homes riding the western face of the Sandias in the Cibola National Forest on Albuquerque’s northern edge.

“Coyotes, nearly every night, sing you to sleep,” he says. “It’s pretty.”

Oh, and then there’s the unusual fact that no utilities – no telephone, no water, no power – reach the neighborhood from the city below.

For several Evergreen Hills residents, remaining out of the city’s grasp offers not a blockade of inconvenience, but an enticing opportunity to live independently. Finding alternative ways to take care of basic needs is part of the area’s appeal, they say.

Webb and the rest of the mountain dwellers draw their water from wells. Cell phones connect them to the outside world. Massive solar panels, resting on yards and hillsides at 45-degree angles, turn sunlight into electricity powering the homes’ slew of modern conveniences – including microwaves, TVs, garage doors and computers.

“On a good sunny day I get about 50 amps an hour at 24 volts,” Webb says. “I really can’t say it isn’t dependable, but if . . . some little fuse blows, or a circuit breaker kicks off, you’ve got to trace it out, find where it’s at.”

On a bad sunny day – following a long period of overcast skies, for example – Webb and some other residents will fire up a generator.

Webb says he had a chance to run utility lines up to his house when he first built it in the early 1980s, but the cost was prohibitive.

Any addition of utility lines today – still an expensive proposition – would have to be approved by Sandia Pueblo, which retains some control over the land surrounding Evergreen Hills after a long dispute with the U.S. Forest Service, says Karen Carter, a public affairs and recreation staff officer for the the Cibola National Forest.

From the early 1980s to 2003, the pueblo and Forest Service argued over who owned the land from the base of the Sandia Mountains to the crest, Carter says.

An agreement finalized in 2003 left general control of the land to the Forest Service, but the pueblo would have to approve any uses of it, she says.

Sandia Pueblo Gov. Stuwart Paisano says the pueblo would consider allowing utility lines to reach Evergreen Hills as long as they strictly followed easements and restrictions outlined in the 2003 agreement. However, the costs of doing so could be a formidable barrier, he adds.

For Evergreen Hills resident Thomas Bluefeather, the lack of utilities combined with its natural beauty was an inspiration.

“I wanted to live here, and the fact that there was no grid power just made it that much more interesting to me,” he says.

Bluefeather, an architect who helped design and construct several of the neighborhood’s solar-powered homes, built his family’s 6,000 square-foot, solar-powered home from the ground up in about two years. It has custom laundry chutes, an energy efficient refrigerator, a hot tub and a TV room. But – unlike many of the other homes in the neighborhood – it lacks a back-up generator and hasn’t needed one yet, Bluefeather says.

“A full on, automatic backup generator is four or five grand, so I just spent the extra money on more solar power,” he says.

A solar system big enough to power a house of his size runs about $30,000, he estimates. The cost can’t compete with the far less expensive cost of building a traditionally powered home, unless the house, like his, lies far off the power grid and would require additional utility poles and wires to connect, he says.

But the extra money was well worth it for the father of two, who drives to the city only one or two times a week for supplies.

“My life here is centered around all the things I wanted to do when I was 12,” he says. “The boys and I go hiking. We make peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. We go play in the tree fort. I do projects around the house.

“We’re half-an-hour from anywhere in Albuquerque, and yet a lifetime away,” he says. “It’s beautiful. I love it.”

Bluefeather worries the idyllic state of Evergreen Hills could be compromised by overly quick development. The same worries Webb, who says the neighborhood has grown rapidly in the past four years.

“We’ve always been pretty much secluded,” he says. “And I hope it stays that way.”

At the same time, adding neighbors drives up the value of Webb’s property, a fact he likes as he ponders moving into a house closer to the city’s conveniences. He says his home would fetch between $300,000 and $400,000.

Bluefeather figures some of the inconveniences – rough roads, having to haul trash down the hill, the lack of utilities and the distance to the city – will deter many from the area.

“If you’re the type of person who really wants to be in and out of town everyday . . . this probably isn’t the spot for you,” he says. “I look at it as a lifestyle as much as anything else. You have to want to be here, not just have your house here.”

*SIDEBAR*

For Angela Blansett, Evergreen Hills is not just a place to live, it’s a way of living.

She, her husband and their two children moved into their solar-powered Evergreen Hills home in May 2004 to live independent of the city’s daily stresses and to join a unique community.

“It’s kind of a group of independent people up here,” she says. “We like our freedom. We don’t want people to tell us how to live.”

Living high above Albuquerque, in a house disconnected from the city’s web of power-delivering wires and water-sending pipes yet lacking no modern convenience, has been a blessing, Blansett says.

“We’ve loved it so far,” she says. “I’ve had absolutely no trouble with the solar.”

Community cooperation is extensive, and it’s a big part of what brought her family to the mountainside, she says.

“In Albuquerque . . . you know your neighbor by sight. Maybe you talk to them, but you’re not involved in each others’ lives at all,” she says. “We were looking for more.”

She points out that one of her neighbors, Thomas Bluefeather, who designed the Blansetts’ home, built a treehouse used by all of the neighborhood children. For Angela Blansett, Evergreen Hills is not just a place to live, it’s a way of living.

She, her husband and their two children moved into their solar-powered Evergreen Hills home in May 2004 to live independent of the city’s daily stresses and to join a unique community.

“It’s kind of a group of independent people up here,” she says. “We like our freedom. We don’t want people to tell us how to live.”

Living high above Albuquerque, in a house disconnected from the city’s web of power-delivering wires and water-sending pipes yet lacking no modern convenience, has been a blessing, Blansett says.

“We’ve loved it so far,” she says. “I’ve had absolutely no trouble with the solar.”

Community cooperation is extensive, and it’s a big part of what brought her family to the mountainside, she says.

“In Albuquerque . . . you know your neighbor by sight. Maybe you talk to them, but you’re not involved in each others’ lives at all,” she says. “We were looking for more.”

She points out that one of her neighbors, Thomas Bluefeather, who designed the Blansetts’ home, built a treehouse used by all of the neighborhood children.

“The community itself is very supportive and everyone knows each other,” she says. “We all walk around at night and visit each other’s houses.”

“The community itself is very supportive and everyone knows each other,” she says. “We all walk around at night and visit each other’s houses.”

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