The Accidental Green Developer

By Beacon Staff

BIGFORK – Even as he proudly shows off the sustainable features of the Saddlehorn development, Doug Averill shies away from the terms “developer” and “green.” He didn’t intend to be either, he insists. What he and his partners planned just happened to fit the bill.

Averill argues that Montanans have always been great environmentalists, acting as good stewards in order to preserve their way of life: “If we weren’t good land stewards, we’d be out of timber, overrun with weeds, with no wildlife or beauty left.” Saddlehorn wasn’t about being green, Averill says, it was about doing what made sense to him as a rancher and what fits with the community.

Yet the hardest sell for Saddlehorn, and projects like it, may still be to other Montanans. The state historically hasn’t been warm to the idea of green building, or really any part of the environmental movement. In the Flathead, tensions between businesses and environmentalists are often heated, even drawing national attention when at their most contentious.

“I think Montanans have always resented the idea of someone from the outside or an urban area telling us how to be green,” Averill said. “The result is that it’s been somewhat stiff-armed. There’s still this image of a gal sitting up in a tree with hairy legs telling us how to act.”

A truck is filled with woodchips on the grounds of the new Saddlehorn development in Bigfork. The chips can be reused in several ways including boiler fuel and compost for erosion control.

The term “green” has been usurped by politics and is too often associated only with environmental extremists, said Kath Williams, a Bozeman-based consultant and past president of the World Green Building Council. Instead, a truer image of an environmentalist may be that of Averill, a soft-spoken, Wrangler-clad and mustachioed rancher.

When finished, Saddlehorn will consist of 320 units on 800 acres located immediately south of Bigfork across the Swan River. Montana Highways 35 and 209 border the development property. Phase I of Saddlehorn received final plat approval from the county last fall and is beginning build out, while Phase II recently received preliminary plat approval and the go-ahead to begin infrastructure construction.

Since the project’s inception just over a year ago, Averill and Saddlehorn’s team of builders, architects and consultants have molded it into a leading green project. Low impact building methods and energy efficient home designs top a long list of environmentally friendly decisions that have added to Saddlehorn’s green reputation.

The efforts haven’t gone unnoticed: Saddlehorn has a chance to not only shape construction in the Flathead by example, but influence national decisions. The project, Williams said, could serve as a model for green building in the rural West and for appropriate standards for certification in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), in rural areas. The LEED program is currently geared only toward urban and suburban settings.

Doug Averill describes plans to build a fire tower style lookout that will be built on Saddlehorn property.

Saddlehorn could prove green building is as economically effective as other development, swaying other builders to follow suit. It could change how homebuyers view cost, encouraging them to invest in quality in the beginning to save over the long run.

But for Averill, being “green” wasn’t part of the original plan. For years, the Averill family, which has operated Flathead Lake Lodge south of Bigfork for more than 60 years, had maintained a gentlemen’s agreement with their neighbor, Jack Whitney, not to develop. When Whitney died over two years ago, his land – 240 acres located north of Highway 209 on the ridge that dominates the southern view from Bigfork – was sold to a developer. Zoning would have allowed that developer to put as many as 1,200 condos on the ridge, Averill said.

“We panicked a bit because we thought it would really destroy the character of the area if that happened,” he said. “It was a defensive move to protect the viewshed above the Lodge and Bigfork.”

The property was too expensive to buy and set aside, Averill said, and he realized he would need to plan some development to attract investors. Plans for Saddlehorn began to take shape; the goals were for low impact homes that would fit in with the culture of the Lodge and the town.

To them, that meant the development wouldn’t make a visible scar on the hillside, situated out of sight from town. Homes would be limited to 4,000 square feet or less with lower rooflines, shielded lighting and natural building materials. The community would minimize cars by designing outdoor areas so that people could easily walk, bicycle or ride electric carts, which will be provided with each home purchase, to other parts of the property.

It meant no closed gates, community events and a self-imposed impact fee: One half of a percent of every sale made in Saddlehorn will go to a community foundation in perpetuity, so even when a lot is re-sold in the future, that percentage goes back to the community. With 21 sales in 2007, the fee has already generated almost $50,000.

Doug Averill describes plans to build a fire tower style lookout that will be built on Saddlehorn property.

Those involved with Saddlehorn and members of the community speak with optimism about the changes the project could influence through its leadership. But, that will first require sales success – something that remains to be proven – and then broader changes.

Alterations in perception and attitude are slow to come in any situation, Williams said, and though she suspects they already are, it will still be a long time before ranchers, and even other Montanans, stand up and call themselves green.

At a recent meeting, Averill and Williams – armed with pretzels and beer – set about convincing on-the-ground workers at Saddlehorn that green building was worth buying into and the need for a willingness to do things differently from the status quo. Averill is stern – there will be fines or firings if workers don’t do the job as asked – but also hopeful the workers will take pride in being part of the development.

Last week builders began reassembling an 1800s-era stone and oak cabin relocated from Bozeman to be used as Saddlehorn’s “Welcome House.” The cabin, reminiscent of Little Home on the Prairie images, will be rebuilt to meet top LEED specifications. It’s different work for the crew, and more difficult, but a welcome change they say.

“It’s going to be a process,” Williams said, “but that’s why we need more Saddlehorns – to prove that this works and that it fits with how Montanans have always lived.”