Paradise lost 

Sundog Ecovillage's permaculture utopia hits the market

When Jason Gutzmer, Penelope Baquero and seven other idealists initially purchased 40 acres of forestland in the Potomac Valley 30 minutes east of Missoula, they envisioned a small community based on land stewardship and sustainability. But in nearly the same amount of time it took to plan and purchase the property, the dream of the Sundog Ecovillage crumbled. Its remaining members are now moving on.

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  • Sundog EcoVillage
  • The founders of Sundog Ecovillage imagined a permaculture-based utopia, but struggled to find people willing to trade urban amenities for a sustainable community lifestyle.

The founders started Sundog Ecovillage with the hopes of creating a permaculture-based utopia. Residents committed to a way of life that maximized natural resources and minimized waste. Perhaps one of the best examples of this practice could be found in its large "hugelkultur" garden located in the center of the property. During the summer, it's teeming with asparagus, strawberries, sunflowers and raspberry bushes, all of which thrive thanks to a system that catches snowmelt and rain runoff and stores it in an underground reservoir. Demonstration projects such as the garden are what made Sundog stand out in the emerging permaculture movement.

But over the last five years, the core group struggled to find people willing to trade urban amenities for a permanent life at Sundog.

"It's hard for people to let go of individualism," Gutzmer says.

Baquero acknowledges that working in Missoula and living at Sundog proved to be a struggle. Her 30-minute commute to Missoula's International School, where she teaches Spanish, proved to be a hassle that not many others were willing to bear. But the main reason she and Gutzmer threw in the towel was their daughter, Aluna, who spent most of her six years of life as the only child living at Sundog.

"As she grew older, I noticed that she was lonely and wanted friends," Baquero says.

Disillusioned, Baquero, Gutzmer and remaining group members Jean Duncan and Rick Sherman put the Sundog Ecovillage up for sale in April. It remains on the market today.

Situated next to more than 75,000 acres of public land, the property is secluded, but still connected to the grid. The main house and the skeleton of the workshop were the only existing structures when the group purchased the site in 2008. Since then, hundreds of interns, workers, transients, volunteers and students from all over the world helped build the property's many amenities.

Today, the land has gained a large workshop, chicken coop, fuel shed, four-season yurt, sustainable tree house, fire pit, playground, raised garden protected by artistically designed fencing, and heated dog house. There have also been hours and hours devoted to forest restoration. But none of these improvements has a market value when it comes to selling the property.

"They have added so many things that in this economy can't equate to anything but love," says Jeannette Williams, the real estate agent for Sundog.

Williams says there were a few interested buyers when the property first went on the market for $430,000, but some of them were turned away by the price, while others were wary of the amount of work it takes to maintain 40 acres. They eventually lowered the price to $400,000.

"It's going to take a really ambitious family or a few families to really take up the baton and move forward and continue with the size of work that Sundog has done," Williams says.

Inside the spacious workshop, Gutzmer demonstrates the recycled garage doors he put on wheels to create moveable walls. The space has been used as an art studio, tool shed, mechanic shop, meeting place, guest room for visitors and even a play place for Aluna.

"One thing has many uses if you open your mind to it," Gutzmer says, pointing to areas in the building. "Someone would be welding over here while my daughter's playing with Legos over there and Bob Marley's on the radio in the background."

Sundog served as a gathering place for scores of eco-minded people. During the 2012 Permaculture Conference, it hosted around 60 visitors, with musicians from Africa, Mexico and the Czech Republic playing music together around the now desolate and quiet fire pit.

It was during that same gathering when Baquero and Gutzmer realized that it was time to move on.

"Our mission was no longer achievable with the group that we were," Baquero says.

Both Baquero and her husband say they are at peace with their decision.

Gutzmer describes the property and all it entails like a painting. "Once you finish it, you have to put it out into the world," he says.

Baquero describes the experience as enriching.

"I think the biggest lesson we learned through Sundog is to make sure your goal is realistic from the beginning," she says.

During a recent visit, Baquero tenderly touched the potted plants still housed at Sundog, watering some and simply admiring others. Outside in the garden, she picked the last bit of living kale before offering up its remaining herbs.

"This place makes me proud even though it's sad that it didn't work out as we'd hoped," she says.

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