- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Finca Bellavista is not an easy place to reach — nor is it necessarily intended to be. Unlike other developments springing up across southern Costa Rica, this community is markedly devoid of flashy advertising billboards or even a simple street sign labeling the steep, gravel entrance road.

Better pull on those rubber boots and grab a machete upon arrival because encountering a spider as big as one’s face is as likely as being stuck in rush-hour traffic back home. And that is precisely the point.

Bellavista co-founder Matt Hogan, 34, dreamed of such a hideaway, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, three years ago during his two-hour daily commute from Frederick, Md., to Baltimore.

“My wife, Erica, and I were looking for a little fixer-upper surf shack, and we ended up accidentally creating this hippy, eco, treehouse community,” he relates not without a glimmer of self-deprecation and the swell of pride.

Contrary to its name, which hints at Spanish gauchos and high-living elite, this “finca” is actually an adventurer’s paradise — a lush rain forest boasting temperate, mosquito-free nights; canopy-level zip line “trails” that carry residents overhead across the 350-acre property; and two major rivers just shallow enough to ford on foot but big enough to provide swimming holes and waterfalls.

It’s all yours for the taking. Parcels of 2 to 4 acres, so densely forested with tropical wonders that new owners have been known to spend entire afternoons simply crossing their own property, are being sold by the Hogans for $49,000 to $65,000 — well below what other local sellers are offering.

The main draw of this corner of the sky is not what has been built, however, but what can’t be built. Each lot is sold without any type of shelter, but buyers must sign a 20-page document that essentially makes them promise to not build a ground dwelling. The only structures allowed: treehouses.

“My wife envisioned Ewok village [from “Return of the Jedi”], and I said, ‘Why not?’ ” says Mr. Hogan, strapping a leather-sheathed knife and a padded climbing harness around his waist.

“But I thought we could take it a step further and make it like a natural, adult amusement park,” adds Mrs. Hogan, 31. “After I said my idea out loud, I remember looking at Matt and thinking, ‘In 20 years I’m going to look back on this moment and think, That’s when our lives changed forever.’ And it is.”

Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine a gaggle of furry “Star Wars” creatures bounding out of the arched entrance when pulling down the retractable stairs to the couple’s two-story arboreal home. A showroom of its surroundings, the wooden structure was crafted of local cypress (superstructure and beams), sustainably harvested teak from a nearby plantation (walls and ceilings) and naturally felled manu negro and corteza from the finca itself — every piece laboriously carried by hand to the site. It blends so convincingly with the neighboring trees that it’s not until one is nearly above its roofs on the access zip line that it draws attention.

“It’s an oxymoron to say ‘sustainable development,’ but the finca was founded on the principal that we should try to adapt to nature and live alongside it as opposed to cutting down trees and making nature accommodate our need to build big-square-footage, big-footprint houses,” Mr. Hogan explains.

Dwellings on metal or wooden supports are permitted, but they have to be at least 4 feet off the ground to promote the movement of animal life. The villagelike cluster of buildings sprouting at “base camp” — including a bathhouse, kitchen, dining and relaxing areas — are all in this style and allow residents to share space and community.

Electricity is generated with solar panels, which power the high-speed satellite hookup (because let’s be realistic, even in the rain forest it’s nice to have Internet access). There is also running water at base camp, gravity-fed from rainwater catch tanks mounted at a higher elevation, so the toilets flush. Where do the contents go? Into special tanks called biodigestors that break the waste into compost. All of the above is required equipment for all the homes at Bellavista.

“Really, we aren’t reinventing the wheel,” laughs Mrs. Hogan. “It’s a matter of simplifying, and using what we have here to make it work. Americans and the Western world in general are so used to being tied to a grid for all of these things that people forget there are other solutions, and they oftentimes take fewer resources, are more economical, and easier to come by.”

Despite the restrictions — and maybe because of them — just more than half of the finca’s 82 lots have been snapped up. New owners, most of whom will use their treehouse property as a second home, include ornithologists, yoga instructors and dot-com prodigies. They are starting to design their own dream homes, even as work on the rest of the property progresses. So far, six totally customized treehouses have been completed.

Once a lot is purchased, owners work with a botanist to identify potential home sites on the property. Owners have the option of hiring Bellavista’s in-house design and construction company for the entire project, or bringing in outside experts, such as treehouse engineer Charley Greenwood. Mr. Greenwood has been working with lot owners K.C. and Shawna Rudy of Texas, crunching variables such as wall thickness and span strength to identify the right type of steel to use for the home’s superstructure. The couple then will work with Bellavista’s in-house company to acquire materials and bring everything to the site. The local team will then do the building.

A massive, open-sided structure with a transparent plastic roof that Mr. Hogan calls “Home Depot” shelters drying lumber hewn from standing dead trees culled from the finca or brought in from local, sustainably harvested sources. A shallow concrete trough resembling a single-lane lap pool recently was completed so the wood can be pressure treated in the most environmentally sustainable way possible.

Also under the roof is a $250,000 hydroelectric pump, which eventually will be set into one of the rivers. It will divert a small portion of the river’s flow through a 12-inch PVC pipe to create enough power to satisfy the entire community and then some. The couple has been told that when it is done it will be the largest privately owned hydropower grid in the country - possibly in all of Central America.

It was precisely these nontraditional logistics that attracted lot owner Shannon Bishop, 36, a photographer and dog walker from Takoma Park, to Bellavista.

“I’ve always been interested in alternative home design. So many of the houses we live in are just like boxes. I wanted something organic,” she says.

She recalls her very first visit, in the early stages of Bellavista’s development.

“When I first came, people were in tents and they had this sort of a makeshift kitchen under this big blue tarp held up by sticks. We were sitting around with lanterns playing Jenga at night.”

Despite the Spartan conditions, she fell in love instantly.

This time, visiting Bella- vista to check out tags left by a botanist who is helping her choose the best trees in which to build, she describes conditions as “a total transformation” and says she can’t wait to spend more time with the finca’s growing community of lot owners.

She laughs, “When I was a kid, my brothers’ friends had a treehouse that they wouldn’t let me come up in because I was a girl. Now that I’m grown up, I can have my own treehouse and I’ll see if I invite them or not.”

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