Self-sustaining community of tiny houses proposed

Builder hopes to create first project of its kind in Elbert County

Tabatha Stewart
Special to Colorado Community Media
Posted 5/11/20

Bernie Schmidt comes from a long line of builders. As a child born to a builder and growing up in Ohio, he began building early as he worked alongside his father. After graduating from Northwestern …

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Self-sustaining community of tiny houses proposed

Builder hopes to create first project of its kind in Elbert County


Bernie Schmidt comes from a long line of builders.

As a child born to a builder and growing up in Ohio, he began building early as he worked alongside his father. After graduating from Northwestern University near Chicago as an adult, Schmidt earned a civil engineering degree and set about on his own career of building houses that would span more than 30 years.

He moved to Colorado in 2014 to learn more about solar-powered homes, and after a health scare, he reevaluated his life, and decided he needed to start eating better and change to a more wholesome lifestyle.

For the past eight years, Schmidt has been researching the concept of a self-sustaining community, where community members can work together toward a common goal of supporting themselves by growing their own food, producing their own energy, recycling their waste and living a life of low stress and healthy living.

After searching the states for an appropriate piece of land to build his first-of-its-kind community on, Schmidt found a 40-acre piece of land in Elbert County, and felt it was the perfect place for Greenland Communities. The rural setting, surrounded by hard-working people who valued working the land and the relaxing lifestyle of the country, seemed like a perfect fit. The site is at 24500 County Road 37, straight east of the town of Elbert.

Preliminary plans call for 14 tiny homes, about 400 square feet each, a 4,000-square-foot community and welcome center, a 1,000-square-foot agricultural and energy center, 5,000-square-foot barn, a 3,000-square-foot building with six kitchenette units, a gazebo, a 100-foot-tall wind turbine, four to six acres of organic gardens, two to four acres of fruit and nut trees, and small buildings for artist spaces, scientific experiments and an 800-square-foot gift shop.

“In today’s world, we wanted to build something that would give people the opportunity to get away from the stressful world of going to work every day, then coming home tired, putting on Netflix and falling asleep,” said Schmidt. “This community would give all residents the chance to be self-supporting, rather than spend their time worrying about paying mortgages, putting food on their table or paying utility bills.”

Greenland Communities would be run as a co-op with residents paying about $79,000 to buy in as a stockholder. Their stockholder rights would give them a right to lease a house for 99 years, and the buy-in fee includes the tiny home plus all food and utilities, as long as they contribute to the community in a sustainable way.

“This is our pilot program, so for this community we need to bring residents in who have valuable skills and knowledge to make it work,” said Schmidt. “We have to vet the people who move here. We’re looking for people who have expertise in several categories, including organic gardening, farming, animal care, and a nurse who is proactive in holistic-type health. We’ll need somebody who is committed to marketing and promoting the property.”

Schmidt said once Greenland Communities is successfully up and running, they hope to develop other properties around the states using the knowledge from building the first one.

“We’ll basically create `manuals’ of what we do, so it can be applied in other places,” said Schmidt. “It could be the perfect kind of community for retirees, who don’t want to maintain an entire homestead, but can still garden and work with animals. They could have a sense of community and purpose. It could also be the answer to the homeless problem in some areas.”

The pilot community wouldn’t have any large family homes, and according to Schmidt the small homes are sufficient for one or two residents, possibly a couple with one small child. The homes will be on concrete foundations, with small basements or walk-out basements. Residents can build porches as they want around their homes, and each home will be run by solar electricity and utilize a composting toilet. Each home will also have a small cast iron stove for backup heating.

A greenhouse will allow residents to grow food year-round, and “forest clusters,” or small orchards, will be scattered around the property. Solar and wind power will be harnessed from the community, and a gray water system will allow them to use water conservatively. Waste produced by the site will be captured and converted through a pyrolysis method to run generators.

The reactions

Schmidt’s first order of business was to hold a community meeting on the evening of May 7, where he would present his concept to neighbors and community members, and give them a chance to ask questions or give input on his concept. The meeting, hosted virtually via Zoom, drew 80 residents, and Schmidt was immediately met with hostility and anger, with residents accusing him of proposing to create inhumane living conditions, steal their water, ruin their way of rural life — and of being a scam artist.

Because the meeting was a public information meeting, those weighing in didn’t have to give their name, and many were identified by their screen names.

An older gentleman with the screen name of NJ accused Schmidt of building a commune of indentured servants, and called the homes “inhumane,” and couldn’t comprehend why anyone would choose to live in such a small space.

Carrie weighed in with support for tiny house living, and said: “Some people make a conscious decision to downsize and take up less space.”

Resident Audrey Walker, whose property is adjacent to Schmidt’s, was concerned the development would be a commune.

“I bought Parcel 1. I’m less than 2,000 feet away from this, so we’re pretty (angry),” said Walker. “We weren’t told about this when we bought our land, we didn’t sell everything we own to move out here and have them next to us. I’m concerned about our pond, the road and all you people driving, your visitors, your RVs. I’m also worried that it sounds like a commune. They’re going to set up their own presidential system and set up their own rules the first day. What kind of people are going to move in here?”

Casey Laird said he moved to the county to get away from people, and having 30 residents on the 40 acres next to him was unacceptable.

“I bought parcel 4 recently. My plan was to build my forever home. If this passes I’ll probably sell,” said Laird. “This is not what I wanted at all. I was looking to get more open in an agriculture zone. And what is the contingency plan if the commune or village fails? It seems more like a social experiment.”

Curtis Ingalls fired back at neighbors who were lobbing accusations and threats at Schmidt, and asked for those on the call to be more respectful.

“We can’t dictate what’s going to happen in the future. You can’t dictate what your neighbors do,” said Ingalls. “It sounds like the neighbors are trying to intimidate the applicant. I’ve got neighbors I’m not especially fond of either, but I would never be threatening. Everything they’re doing is revolving around agriculture. How many people out here grow food that humans can’t even eat?”

An unnamed caller said he didn’t agree with the community living lifestyle.

“He’s trying to do something in that area that’s never been done before, and the neighbors have to live with that. You give them an inch and they take a mile. There could be all kinds of these communities out there if this goes through.”

Katherine was concerned that millennials and baby boomers would be the demographic.

“This sounds like a modern version of a commune, and that raises some red flags for me,” she said. “What kind of person would want to join a community that’s so hands-on? Will this be a millennial community? A group of young people who are looking to have an inexpensive way of life in an environment that may not be inclined to support that long term? It sounds a little threatening to have this newer concept of community coming in with a completely opposing demographic.”

Schmidt assured her they would promote community participation and outreach, and the community would be open to the public at all times, and they would welcome neighbors or community members coming to visit and see how the place is run.

“I think you’re right. The millennials and baby boomers who want to semi-retire are good candidates,” said Schmidt.

Going forward

Schmidt said he wasn’t disheartened by the meeting.

“It’s kind of normal for those reactions when you’re presenting something new. We’re going to talk to the neighbors and address some issues. This is just a concept stage so we’ll address their concerns,” said Schmidt. “This process is really all about what this concept will look like in the neighborhood, and we’re committed to being good neighbors and stewards of the land.”


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