A 'green' town, or pie in the sky?

This town of the future on a back road in the rural Panhandle has its ardent supporters - as well as its critics.

Published May 22, 2007

THE FUTURE SITE OF SKY - Homes here could be heated or cooled using the Earth's underground temperature. Appliances would be run by solar-powered batteries. Houses would be oriented to avoid the summer sun.

And everyone could grow some food in the garden each house will have or in community orchards. If all goes as planned, the 600 families in this proposed Florida Panhandle town will lessen the carbon they spew into the atmosphere by walking just about everywhere they go.

Sky is meant to be the green town of the future - the way Americans will live when they realize they use too much energy, its developers say.

It may be in one of the last places you would expect to find a mecca of green building, along a back road in rural Calhoun County. It's a half-hour from the nearest interstate and an hour from Tallahassee.

Florida gains about 900 people a day, and homes have to be built, but Bruce White, one of the developers, and his partner, architect Julia Starr Sanford, wonder why it all has to be suburban sprawl.

Florida State University's Center for Advanced Power Systems is collaborating on the project, its engineers helping design the town. Engineers think the most promising element is simply that the energy efficiencies will be done community-wide, rather than house by house.

They envision having one central air conditioner for the entire town and distributing the cooled air to houses. Some heating and cooling may be done with a geothermal system, where liquid is piped underground to be heated by the Earth in the winter and cooled by it in the summer.

"That's a huge deal to look at it on the whole community level and the efficiency you can gain, " said Rick Meeker, an engineer at the FSU center.

And the town will have wireless Internet, so some residents could work from home or move their businesses to this out-of-the way place.

While project leaders foresee people moving to Sky precisely because of its aspiration for global change, some locals say that if people really want to do good for the Earth they shouldn't start by building more than 600 homes, with new roads.

"We are paving over wildlife habitat, and we have to somehow protect it, " said Betsy Knight, an environmental activist who runs a wild-animal shelter in the county.

But many in the area support Sky, including Marti Vickery, who works for the local chamber of commerce.

She said the development is far preferable to the concrete craze enveloping nearby coastal areas.

"We don't want urban sprawl - we like the flavor of (Sky's) design, the country feel, " Vickery said. "It totally fits."