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Couple finds path to building simple living space isn’t simple

  • Susan and Jonathan von Ranson in their Wendell Center home. Recorder/Paul Franz

    Susan and Jonathan von Ranson in their Wendell Center home. Recorder/Paul Franz

  • von Ranson barn in Wendell.  Recorder/Paul Franz

    von Ranson barn in Wendell. Recorder/Paul Franz

  • Susan and Jonathan von Ranson in their Wendell Center home.  Recorder/Paul Franz

    Susan and Jonathan von Ranson in their Wendell Center home. Recorder/Paul Franz

  • Susan and Jonathan von Ranson in their Wendell Center home. Recorder/Paul Franz
  • von Ranson barn in Wendell.  Recorder/Paul Franz
  • Susan and Jonathan von Ranson in their Wendell Center home.  Recorder/Paul Franz

WENDELL — After 19 years of living without electricity or running water in a backwoods house he built in 1978 as a refugee from suburban Connecticut, Jonathan von Ranson and his wife Susan moved in 1997 to the center of a town with something of a reputation for community-spirited individualism.

Ironically, the century-old house they moved into just off the town common is believed to be the first one in Wendell to be electrified in the mid-1940s. But after a decade of conventional living, the von Ransons decided they wanted to return to their prior level of simplicity by setting up an apartment in their newly rebuilt barn.

After five years of applying and re-applying to local authorities, the couple — now in their 70s — are beginning to see a light at the end of the regulatory maze, and are ready, in a Saturday event sponsored by the Wendell Cultural Council, to show visitors what life would be like living with a compost-style toilet, hand-pumped water, no electricity and heating solely from a wood-burning cook stove.

Today’s “show-and-tell” event, from 3 to 4:30 p.m. — along with a Jan. 20 conversation at 7:30 p.m. in Wendell Free Library sponsored by an informal Wendell climate change group with von Ranson, Selectboard member Jeoffrey Pooser and local builder Alister MacMartin — are intended to clear the air on an issue that’s far from settled, and reaches beyond Wendell and the von Ransons.

In fact, following a petition by 230 Wendell residents — 40 percent of the town’s voters — supporting the couple’s attempt to live simply, the state Department of Public Health began developing “alternative housing” provisions for the state Sanitary Code. The town Board of Health is also drafting a “conservation-oriented” housing program, to go before town meeting next year, that would allow builders of owner-occupied houses that meet the “spirit and intent” of the sanitary code to vary from sections of the sanitary code as long as they meet minimum sanitary and safety standards.

“I’m very interested in what they do,” says Glen Ayers, Franklin Regional health agent who doesn’t cover Wendell but some of whose towns “would be very interested in this model of an almost affordable housing opportunity.”

Small towns enforce the sanitary code in a largely “complaint driven” way, but Ayers sees Wendell as taking a more pro-active approach to allowing people “to live simply, with a low-carbon footprint.”

When the von Ransons lived in what he calls “rudimentary” conditions on Bear Mountain, four miles from the town center, it was “a simple way of living” that nobody bothered him or neighbors in similar cabins because they were out of sight.

After thinking about trying to tear out the electrical system and plumbing in their Wendell Center house, they decided to combine their plans with moving into a smaller space in their barn and renting out the house for income with a desire to reduce their carbon footprint, says von Ranson, 72.

From the outset, he expected regulatory hurdles, since the state housing code requires all houses within 600 feet of electric service to hook up to the grid and requires central plumbing, a backup heating source and an approved septic system or sewer hookup.

“I thought it might take us three or four years. It’s been five and counting,” says von Ranson, pointing to two local health board rejections, in 2009 and 2010.

Now, he says, “Things are moving along, but not seamlessly.”

The apartment is already being heated by the Finnish-designed, masonry cookstove-heater von Ranson built, generating hot water that can be diverted to a separate sink that can be used for sponge baths or a makeshift shower off the kitchen area. It also has a two-pit “moldering toilet” hooked to the chimney to allow for aeration that will reduce odors and aid the composting process.

“We’ve gotten really lost as members of an Earth community, about who we are, about what quality of life really is,” says von Ranson in explaining why he and his wife are so intent on not only trying to work around the regulations, but seeking to allow others to do so as well. “We’re so lost that we’re threatening our own existence, the system’s existence, more than I would have thought a species as intelligent as the human species could.”

He points to the state’s 2008 “Global Warming Act,” which says that any permitting agency should ultimately consider the effects of its decisions on climate change as an ultimate guiding principle in this issue.

With the five-year struggle essentially in what one Selectboard member calls “a holding pattern,” the von Ransons say their town boards and officials have been supportive through their efforts — especially through changes in board makeup through several election cycles. But with approval still needed from a building inspector trying to navigate through often conflicting, evolving, sets of regulations, the gray-bearded homesteader says, “Since I know that and have lived simply before, nothing’s going to stop me from again trying to live that way. And if somebody notices and says, ‘That’s a different lifestyle,’ that would be great. The idea of saying, ‘I’ve just got to go along with this,’ it doesn’t feel like I need to. And I’m not going to. ... I’m not going to just give up.”

Susan von Ranson adds, “So many people have said, ‘Just do it!’ But Jonathan has said, ‘I just want this to be legal, so other people can eventually do it, too.’ We live in this town, and we agree with all its processes, the town meeting and everything.”

Pooser says, “Especially given the overwhelming support in town about focusing on conservation-oriented housing, this is not simply a case of the von Ransons trying to circumvent laws for financial reasons ... There’s a real, sincere intent to focus on conservation.”

Their frustration, he says, is similar to that of a lot of less visible townspeople who want to live more simply.

“Here we are with overwhelming, daily bombardment of dire news on all sorts of fronts,” Pooser says, “yet at the same time it would appear that we’re legally obliged to increase our ecological footprint rather than take responsible measures to decrease it.”

You can reach Richie Davis at: or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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