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Originally published Monday, September 11, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Oregon community opts off the grid

The residents of Three Rivers — a hodgepodge of upscale houses, mobile homes, outhouses and shacks an hour's drive from Bend, Ore. — have no telephone or power lines, and they're trying to keep it that way.

The (Bend) Bulletin

LAKE BILLY CHINOOK, Ore. — A twisty road leading out of Lake Billy Chinook and into a ponderosa-pine forest eventually takes you straight by the front gate of a very different kind of place.

Behind the manned gate of the Three Rivers Recreation Area lie 4,000 acres of property and 450 homes, but not a single phone or power line.

Residents in this subdivision of full- and part-time homeowners are entirely off the electrical and telephone grid, proud of it and wanting it to stay that way. They rely on solar power to provide houses with electricity.

"You have no idea how bright the stars are," said Mary Johnson, 69, who bought property at Three Rivers with her husband in 1975 and moved there permanently in 1999. "No sirens, no trains. I would not live anywhere else."

An hour from Bend, this hodgepodge of upscale houses, mobile homes, outhouses and shacks has been defying norms since the development began in the late 1960s.

Until the advent of cellphones, the main mode of communication was CB radios. Some residents still have signs advertising their call names, nailed to trees at the ends of their driveways.

"Hot lips. Bourbon 7," one sign reads.

For the people who live here, the lack of utilities is a charm, not a drawback.

Three Rivers is near Bureau of Land Management property, National Grasslands, nonbuildable rangeland and Lake Billy Chinook, they point out. It has views of Mount Jefferson and includes a large marina, an airstrip and a beach on the lake.

The subdivision was a vacation spot for most of its history. Many former vacationers have stayed, and now, residents said, about 90 live at the place full time.

The lack of electricity hasn't discouraged people from building large, elaborate homes. Houses valued at more than $2.5 million sit next to shacks.

The available amenities haven't changed much.

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There are only a few wells in the neighborhood because there is no electricity to pump them. Most people bring in their own water or pay neighbors to bring water around in trucks with holding tanks.

Despite the rustic nature of Three Rivers, even trailers have large solar panels on their roofs, and plush carpets can be found on the floors of outhouses.

For Howard Williams, the thrill of living in Three Rivers comes from the pride he takes in keeping his home self-sufficient.

"You actually provide," said the 65-year-old, who formerly owned a chain of grocery stores in Portland and began living in Three Rivers in 1985.

Each day, Williams gets up, heads outside to the garage, turns on country music and checks his power system.

He carefully monitors the water level in his well, the amount of power stored in his large battery system and the amount of fuel he has to run his generator, which is used when his solar-panel batteries get too low.

Most people in the neighborhood have the same kinds of appliances and devices that people in an urban area would have.

Benefits of having a home in Three Rivers include low crime and friendly neighbors, but there are a few drawbacks.

For most of the year, the area is dry and brown, and it can take some time to appreciate the landscape, residents said.

The arid terrain also is susceptible to fire. In 2002, the Eyerly fire burned 23,000 acres in the region, including 400 acres at Three Rivers and 17 homes, said resident Elaine Budden, 61.

And old-timers say the nature of the place is changing as more people come to live in nicer homes.

"What's hard is for the people who have retired," said Bill Shay, who served as president of Three Rivers' homeowners association. "They don't want dues increases or property-tax increases."

But residents usually get along, Budden said.

She gets a kick out of "city folks" who come to visit and tell her it's a little too rustic.

"They say, 'But you can't even send out for pizza!,' " she said. "I'm like, 'That's the good news!' "

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