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California and the West

Visionaries Seek to Turn Village Into Utopia

Environment: Residents of the Northern California hamlet of Caspar hope to remake it, complete with electric vehicle charging station, extensive solar power and affordable housing.

May 10, 1999|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CASPAR, Calif. — They call their village Caspar the Friendly Ghost Town, an apt description for this North Coast map speck, with its 300-odd residents and nine improbable enterprises: A preschool, two massage practitioners, an acupuncturist, a printing company, a roadhouse, a recording studio, a catalog venture selling meteorological supplies and a synagogue.

The primary resource here is land, and the bulk of Caspar is up for sale--200 acres of headland and meadow 160 miles north of San Francisco, owned by a reclusive rancher. But that's not the news--or rather, that's just a very small part of it.

The story is what may happen to that land, the former site of a thriving sawmill and company town, both of which disappeared in the mists like Brigadoon.

The Casparados, as residents call themselves, have detailed plans to turn their unincorporated village into a miniature mecca of sustainability, complete with dedicated open space, electric vehicle charging station, widespread solar power and affordable housing. Oh, and they want a bakery.

When they're done, they hope to have some agriculture--enough to make this isolated area a bit more self-reliant--some light industry, perhaps a hotel, and residences clustered to protect the view and delicate local plants and animals.

Utopian? Perhaps. Micromanaged? Definitely, by a motley crew of the mostly wealthy and artistic who have spent more than a year and a half--some even seeking therapy in the process--to achieve a goal that is elusive nationwide: the creation of a working town with little environmental impact.

First, though, they have to buy the place. To do that, they need about $6 million, but they figure that in a pinch they can raise at least a sixth of that among themselves. Together the disparate group has embarked on an experiment in no government, a months-long effort to answer a thorny question: Can scores of fiercely independent individuals join together to make themselves a hometown, a place where they feel they all can belong, for perhaps the very first time?

"Caspar is a place where misfits go," declares Michael Potts, author and board member of the just-formed Caspar Community, a nonprofit organization. "Until this movement . . . the only distinction Caspar had was that it was a settlement of junkyard dogs."

The residents are junkyard dogs with a plan for their hometown's next 100 years and--now--a shared vision for community and sustainability that towns throughout the country are striving for, though generally in far less colorful fashion.

The Internet is lousy with Web sites sporting names like the Center for Livable Communities. In the fall 1998 election alone, more than 200 ballot measures nationwide addressed issues surrounding unmanageable sprawl.

"There are a lot of people today trying to make their communities more sustainable. It's the utter buzzword," says Randy Hester, who has traveled the world creating community plans and helped draw up the blueprint for the new Caspar. "This [effort] does stand out. There's just no question."

It stands out, experts say, because of an odd combination of circumstances that together mean Caspar residents could actually pull off their unusual dream:

* A prime chunk of land put up for sale, which is owned by a single entity willing to take the very long, high road, instead of going for a quick deal with the highest bidder.

* A community with the sophistication, patience and money to create a futuristic but workable plan for land they as yet do not own.

* A difficult and novel 20-month process during which the local populace pulled together to figure out a future--and became a community along the way.

"What caught my attention here is not just how beautiful it is, but how organized you are," Andrew Vesselinovitch, field representative in the Trust for Public Land's San Francisco office, told the Casparados at a community meeting this spring. "This is really wonderful and is what sets you apart."

Mill Once Was Prosperous

Caspar has often stood out in one way or another. From 1861 until 1955, the Caspar Lumber Co. operated a sawmill that bordered on lush redwood forest where Caspar Creek poured into the Pacific Ocean. During its early years, the mill--which was supplied by its own railroad--was on the technological cutting edge of processing enormous old-growth logs.

"Maybe it's the genius of this place," muses Potts. "Caspar has been on the cutting edge of technology and social change since humans have been here. . . . In this little place they invented the way to deal with big redwood trees. . . . We're trying to make a similar revolution."

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