Arson at 'Green' Homes Points To Environmentalist Divisions

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 9, 2008

ECHO LAKE, Wash. -- The carbon footprint of the big house on 214th Street is no longer a matter of chatty conjecture. Black ash laced with gray defines the perimeter of the $2 million home, "built green" as a showcase in this emerald corner of America that has long set the pace for the environmental movement -- and last week burned to the ground in an arson fire that threw a whole new light on the competition to be greener-than-thou.

"Built green? Nope, BLACK!" read the spray-painted bed sheet firefighters found draped over a fence in the cul-de-sac where two other model homes were also aflame, each 4,000 square feet and dubbed green.

"McMansions and RCDs r not green," the sign said, referring to rural cluster subdivisions, the zoning that preserves open space while allowing more houses. The signature was also an acronym: "ELF" is recognized in the Pacific Northwest as the Earth Liberation Front, a shadowy fringe group that aims to bring the absolutism of animal liberation extremists to the cause of the environment.

Indeed, as investigators waited for the three homes in Snohomish County to cool, a jury downstate was convicting a 32-year-old violinist for serving as a lookout on the day in March 2001 that ELF burned down a horticulture research building at the University of Washington.

Yet no one seems quite sure the latest fire was the work of ELF. Many people in mostly rural Snohomish County are angered by the blitz of new construction moving north from Seattle.

The burned houses had stood unsold for months, having been built on spec by companies calculating on one more Puget Sound millionaire with deep pockets and a "think-green" outlook to emerge from the thousands of people who trooped through the homes in an annual tour known as the Street of Dreams.

"I'm doing one now two blocks from Bill Gates's home," said Jim Jensen, referring to Gates's lakeside estate that occupies 48,000 square feet and is billed as environmentally friendly. Jensen, who lives around the corner from the arson site, had no properties on the street but has built his share of dream homes for Seattle's new rich.

"I think it really all started with the Microsoft people," Jensen said of the boom that is still lifting home prices 10 to 15 percent annually and has filled most of King County.

"So we've made a living off those guys for a few years. And now they're coming out here."

With them come the usual debates over development, with every side claiming the mantle of green, as so much does these days.

It starts with the question of whether only small is beautiful.

"Everything is relative," said Grey Lundberg, who built the Urban Lodge, the house that burned to its foundations. "Some people are really hung up on square footage. Houses are going to get built. Do you want them to be as energy efficient as possible?"

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