Jerome Osentowki — an internationally-recognized permaculture pioneer — began farming on Basalt Mountain in the 1970s. Nearly 50 years later, the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute (CRMPI) is one of the oldest established demonstration sites in the United States. Operating at 7,200 feet in elevation, CRMPI has attracted students from around the world to witness Osentowki’s innovations for growing food in harsh environments with minimal reliance on fossil fuels.
What is permaculture? In essence, it is a philosophy for sustaining human life that combines the concept of “culture” with permanence. To achieve truly sustainable living, permaculture promotes working with the Earth’s natural systems rather than against them.
“Oftentimes, industrial agriculture is touted as one of the main contributors to climate change,” educator Careen Erbe told The Sopris Sun. “In permaculture, the problem is the solution. Agriculture can be a solution.”
Erbe teaches certification courses alongside Osenkowski. “Social systems design is a big part of it,” she continued. “Paying attention to the people piece is fundamental.”
In recent years, CRMPI has been stuck navigating the “people piece” within the larger social ecosystem, attempting retroactively to sanction the institute within Eagle County’s code. Presently, the land is zoned “resource” and is too small to fit within the state’s 35-acre standard for agricultural use-by-right. As such, an arduous process is underway to acquire a special use permit that would allow the site to continue operating as it has for decades, with on-site camping, plus the addition of an accessory dwelling unit.
Due to turnover within Eagle County’s staff, CRMPI has been successively assigned four different planners; according to Maya Ward-Karet, an architect hired by Osentowki to help CRMPI navigate this process, each planner assigned to the applicant has had differing recommendations for which of the county’s many land use categories to apply under.
Eventually, CRMPI came before the Roaring Fork Valley Planning Commission as a “resort recreation facility,” a designation which Ward-Karet and CRMPI openly rejected. Instead, they attempted to qualify the operation as an agricultural education/demonstration farm, a classification that does not exist in the county’s code.
However, “We’re not asking for a new use category,” insisted Ward-Karet. “We’re asking for the proposed use to be considered as most similar to agricultural use under the existing nuclear definition and Colorado Revised Statutes.” There is precedent of other Colorado counties expanding their definitions for resource zoning to include smaller-scale farming as a use-by-right.
“We were just working in good faith with the planners,” Ward-Karet continued. “We structured our entire application around the standards of resort recreation … to give the planners as much of a leg up as possible.”
After two postponements, one occurring on the eve of a hearing on July 7 with a contracted planner’s failing to “adequately present the file,” according to an Eagle County Press release, the Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission recommended denial of the special use permit on July 21. Commissioner Karen Barch was the lone vote in favor of CRMPI’s out-of-the-box designation.
“The county has gone to some length to find conditions and resolve some issues,” she stated, suggesting “openness to at least working with the applicant, maybe with some tweaks to the way they’re operating.”
Commissioner Temple Glassier, a fourth generation rancher in the Valley, said, “CRMPI is wonderful, don’t doubt it … But does the application fit and meet the standards? That’s what we have to look at. How wonderful CRMPI is is not on the table, unfortunately for us.” She acknowledged that the Eagle County Commissioners have more authority to make exemptions.
During the public hearing at that meeting, more than a dozen people stepped forward to speak on behalf of the intrinsic value of CRMPI to the Roaring Fork Valley and the world.
“Jerome is not just a farmer and educator, he is a visionary,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Francie Jacober, speaking as an individual and not as an elected official. “His farming is not flowing fields on the valley floor, but highly creative use of a challenging property. This is exactly what the world needs… we have to learn from people like Jerome.”
Four neighbors, two of which were directly represented by lawyer Kelcey Nichols at the public hearing, have taken issue with CRMPI circumventing approvals from the get-go and assert that retroactive forgiveness is not appropriate. “It is the applicant’s burden to show uses conform to the code, not commissioners’ to bend and adjust it to conform to uses that began in 1987,” said Nichols.
“Being legal is important,” contended neighbor Eric Berry. “It’s what, as another business owner, I’ve had to do all along: be in compliance with rules and regulations set in front of me.”
Berry shared concerns with The Sopris Sun that sanctioning CRMPI’s on-site camping could set a precedent on Basalt Mountain that would allow a similar, existing permaculture operation to add lodging. With only 22 parcels on the mountain, Berry explained, every additional car on the narrow and winding road has a considerable impact.
Nonetheless, Berry admitted, “CRMPI should be held as a jewel for what can be produced,” saying, “Jerome’s ideas are great, they just have to be done legally.”
“We discussed dropping the application entirely and applying for a change in code instead,” said Ward-Karet. After what’s already been a lengthy and expensive process, however, Osentowki is reluctant to start over. “If Jerome was a millionaire and 30 years younger, this would be different,” she continued.
“At this point, we can’t draw back and resubmit,” said Osentowski. Already, in addition to approximately $75,000 spent navigating this process, CRMPI has been unable to host on-site lodging for students, which has eaten into the income that its programming generates.
Osenwoski asserts that Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties should consider the lodging needs of local farms for workers and education. “We need to have farm schools,” he said. “This information is locked up in a few people. All the farms are doing good work with different strategies.”
A week after Osentowki’s 81st birthday, on Sept. 30 at 4 p.m., CRMPI will ask the Eagle County Commissioners for approval of the special use permit and accessory dwelling unit.
“If I don’t get this approved, I stand to lose a quarter million [dollars] per year,” said Osentowski, who seeks to hire the right staff and retire on his farm in the near future. He based this estimation on the institute’s income in 2021. “After bills, there’s not much left,” he continued.
“It’s been painful to watch, as a process, because if I wasn’t personally connected, I would be giving Jerome support to help do this,” said Berry, who previously maintained his own permaculture project on the adjacent property. “I would be right there standing next to him … because I think it is needed at this time where we are getting further and further away from the land and its ability to sustain us. … I believe in what he does and yet we have these issues that need to be resolved before things can get better.”
Osentwoski hopes that with proposed measures, including rerouting CRMPI’s traffic to an upper road and a fire mitigation plan that could save nearby properties, his neighbors will embrace the institute.
“As much as planners and land use professionals like to think everyone should plan ahead of time and answer questions before … the reality is a lot of things morph and change overtime,” said Ward-Karet. “Jerome didn’t buy property to start an institute. He bought property to be a small-scale farmer, to do direct-market and traditional agriculture. He learned about new methods along the way, trying them and inviting people to come and help out.”
She concluded, “Things evolve and change.”