Phil Coale  /  AP
Bruce White, president of White Starr Inc., shows the site of the proposed town of Sky during a tour on May 15.
updated 5/24/2007 12:45:23 PM ET 2007-05-24T16:45:23

Homes here could be heated or cooled using the Earth’s natural underground temperature. Appliances would be run by solar-powered batteries. Houses would be oriented to avoid the summer sun.

And everyone could grow some of their own food in the garden each house will have or in community orchards. If all goes as planned, the 600 families in this proposed Florida Panhandle town will lessen the carbon they spew into the atmosphere by walking just about everywhere they go, except maybe work or school.

“You’ve got almost a zero-carbon footprint just by living here,” said Bruce White, one of the developers of the town, who envisions creating the climate steward’s dream community. “Just by being here you will be an environmentalist.”

Part of a growing $12 billion a year sustainable building industry, Sky is meant to be the green town of the future — the way Americans will live when they realize they use too much energy, its developers say. They hope it will serve as an experiment into what can be done to accomplish that goal, and maybe be a model for other communities.

Right now, it’s mostly pine trees, grassy meadow, creeks and scattered gladiolus flowers — which were grown commercially on the property by the previous owner.

It may be in one of the last places you’d expect to find a mecca of green building, along a backroad in remote and rural Calhoun County. It’s a half hour from the nearest interstate, an hour from the coast and an hour from the nearest good-sized city, Tallahassee.

Florida grows by about 900 people a day, and new homes have to be built. White and his partner, architect Julia Starr Sanford, wonder why it all has to be suburban sprawl.

“Things have got to change,” said White, a self-described “outdoorsy environmentalist.”

University helps design
Florida State University’s Center for Advanced Power Systems is collaborating on the project, its engineers helping design the town. Then, they’ll study what works and what doesn’t.

Engineers think the most promising element is simply that the energy efficiencies will be done community-wide, rather than house-by-house.

For example, engineers envision having essentially one central air conditioner for the entire town and then distributing the cooled-air to houses. Some of the heating and cooling may be done with a geothermal system, where liquid is piped underground to be heated by the Earth in the winter and cooled by it in the summer and then used to heat and cool homes.

“That’s a huge deal to look at it on the whole community level and the efficiency you can gain,” said Rick Meeker, an engineer at the FSU center.

The planners say residents will also ease their impact with community food production.

About half of the 571 acres in Sky will be set aside for farming, in homeowners’ gardens or community plots. White said that’s key — because Americans have to reduce their dependence on food that’s trucked thousands of miles.

White said Sky won’t be a commune — he winces at the hippie connotation, saying the town will be more of a “luxury community.” There may be some old hippies, but developers expect Sky will appeal to a younger, professional demographic, albeit one with a social conscience.

“A group of people that are very environmentally aware and want to be somewhere with other people who think like them,” said Sanford, describing the people she thinks would move in. “People who want to contribute and do something responsible.”

The town will have wireless Internet capacity, so some residents could work from home or move their business to this out-of-the way place. An hour commute to Tallahassee or Panama City would be possible — but might defeat the purpose.

The development itself would provide some work: Someone would have to run the planned lodge, holistic spa and other businesses.

White thinks “outdoorsy” types like himself will move in because they don’t want to live in or near a big, crowded city anyway. Developers are intentionally leaving some land undeveloped — and marketing that as a big part of the appeal.

Some activists opposed to idea
While project leaders foresee people moving to Sky precisely because of its aspiration for global change, some locals say that if people really want to do good by the Earth they shouldn’t start by building a 600-plus home development with new roads, wastewater and garbage.

“We are paving over wildlife habitat and we have to somehow to protect it,” said Betsy Knight, an environmental activist who runs a wild-animal shelter in the county.

Knight and a few other locals also worry that a big new development approaching the size of the county seat of Blountstown would change the area’s character.

Skip Hatos, who lives in the tiny nearby hamlet of Clarksville, doesn’t want to stop the project, but he is worried about potential damage to the springs that feed the Chipola River, which runs into the Apalachicola River. And he’s concerned about what impact a large development would have on locals’ ability to draw water from their wells.

White said he understands — and says the town’s waste water recycling system will be designed to protect the springs.

Many in the area support Sky, including Marti Vickery, who works for the local chamber of commerce. She said the development is far preferable to the concrete craze enveloping nearby coastal areas.

“We don’t want urban sprawl — we like the flavor of (Sky’s) design, the country feel,” Vickery said. “It totally fits.”

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