Living off the Grid: Legal or Illegal?

Numerous people in America today aspire to be able to live the dream of living off-grid. For some, the idea of living off the grid is the thought of ditching their electricity supplier to use solar power, whilst others want to embrace an overall simpler self-sufficient life or homestead as many of our ancestors did.

There are several attractions to this lifestyle, from the constant increases in the cost of living to the wish to live an eco-friendly existence. I am convinced more people are making the move to meet their dreams.

The answer is yes, it is perfectly legal to live off-grid, or homestead. However, the conditions and legalities vary hugely throughout the states. Providing you adhere to the relevant county legislation regarding zoning restrictions, utilities and activities for the land your homestead will be perfectly legal, and you will be able to enjoy your perfect lifestyle.

If the idea of living remote is a concern, many off-grid communities have been set up across the country that allows the lifestyle but with support and companionship.

However, there are numerous stories of people living off-grid being arrested and encountering all sorts of legal problems. One of the most high-profile cases was that of mountain man Eustace Conway, one of the stars of History Channels “Mountain Men” series.

Eustace bought a large plot of land on Turtle Island that he set up as an off-grid preserve at which he could share his outdoor skills. For twenty-five years the scout’s association schools and families visited the center to learn outdoor skills from Eustace.

It was a complete surprise when officials from Watauga County visited the preserve and closed it down saying that it was illegal. Unfortunately, stories like this have resulted in the supposition that living off-grid is illegal without understanding the reasons why the authorities took this action.

There does seem to be a movement in legislative America and some states that are making it harder for anyone to be able to comply with all the necessary regulations and hence making this style of living difficult in certain changing circumstances.

Where are you going to live?

The first consideration when thinking of taking the plunge into this alternative lifestyle is where geographically is the best place to set up home. There is plenty of land that is not being used, so why not just put up a fence and park your RV as a base to live in whilst you build a house.

As idyllic as this may seem, it is not legal to use any unused or empty land to build a house on and live. Additionally, in several states, it is not even legal to park your RV on a plot of land whilst you build a house. Several other factors also need to be considered.

The weather is very important, especially when considering what power supply and heating are going to be required. It also has a profound influence on any agricultural activities that are being planned.

Land quality, prices and property taxes are also particularly crucial factors that will affect the viability of creating a sustainable lifestyle. Anyone thinking that this alternative lifestyle is cheap had better think again. Long term it is cheaper, but the initial set up cost can be very expensive.
Zoning restrictions

There are various zoning restrictions in all states that affect what can be built and where. It is this that can by far be the largest factor in deciding on the best location for you to live.

Property can only be built on certain lot sizes and in certain locations for certain purposes. Zoning restrictions need certain square footage for any building design before a building certificate will be issued.

Failure to acquire a certificate can result in any property built being declared illegal and a citation will be issued for building a structure “that endangers the lives of others”.

Once a permit to build is issued International building codes should be adhered to. Inspections will be carried out by the local authority to be sure of compliance.

Electricity

Electricity is such an important utility that we all rely on and take for granted. Switch the light on, open the fridge, wash our clothes in the washing machine, these are everyday facilities that we do not need to think about. Few people want to live without electricity in one form or another.

If you have an existing property that is close to other properties and already connected to an electricity supplier, it is illegal in some states to disconnect this supply in favor of an alternative source.

An option is to integrate a power supply such as solar, that can supply power to the grid if you have excess or use power from the grid when your supply is insufficient.

For remote areas, there is a strong possibility that there is no electricity supply nearby. The cost per Mile of laying electricity cables can be prohibitive, making such alternatives as solar, wind or generators the only cost-effective option. These alternative supplies are normally legal to use but some states have legislation about what and how it is installed.

The authorities normally frown on non-commercial products being assembled unprofessionally. They normally stipulate that any installation must be fit for purpose and provide an adequate and sustainable supply.

The environmental agency is at present offering tax cuts to encourage the use of solar power. Although some states penalize those wishing to use solar many states such as California have targets to increase renewable energy utilization and are offering tax incentives to encourage alternative energy resources.

Water

Water is another utility that we have grown accustomed to being readily available. Some states are quite insistent that you connect to a local supply network and will not permit exceptions.

As with electricity, most states insist that if a property is not connected to a regulated supply there must be a sustainable supply of suitable water, especially if children are living in the property.

An option in rural areas that are not close to a supply is to create a well to draw water from the water table. This may sound simple but can prove quite complicated as the right kind of well needs to be created according to where the water is on your land.

Locating a water supply is complex as it is important that there is no risk of contamination from any other source and just because there is water available now it is not guaranteed that it will always be there.

Well if there is plenty of rain, then it’s easy to collect and store rainwater. Unfortunately collecting rainwater is not legal in some states. Just because it falls on your land you do not necessarily have the right to it.

As rain falls it passes through the land and supply streams, rivers, and reservoirs. Subsequently, the owners of these areas or even the state have a legal right to this resource.

Contamination can also be an issue if the water is collected after passing over some roofing materials as they are normally treated with chemicals to prevent mold and grass growing in them.

It is possible for the chemicals on these materials to leach out into the water, making it very dangerous to drink.

Sewage

The other aspect of water that is taken for granted is sewage. In the normal residential home, the sink is drained the toilet is flushed without any thought about where the contents travel to.

Sewage is possibly one of the utmost regulated areas that need to be tackled to live off-grid. It is not possible to just dig a hole for your wastewater to be deposited.

There is legislation that covers the siting, construction and operation of any system that is intended to dispose of wastewater and sewage.

In the majority of cases it is not permitted to install your system you are legally obliged to use a licensed contractor.

To avoid the installation of a costly sewage system, it is possible to use a chemical toilet as used by the RV community. Unfortunately, especially if you have children, the public health inspector will be knocking on the door as the use of this system would be illegal due to Health and Safety issues.

Activities

Another area that will reflect upon your rights to live off-grid is what activities you want to undertake in the land.

Countless people have the dream of chickens for fresh eggs, possibly even cows or goats for milk and cheese, and what about pigs. The thought of your own reared livestock free from the additives and chemicals that are often introduced in commercially raised animals is extremely appealing.

Close to cities, this sort of activity will not be permitted, although remote areas normally will allow livestock, providing it has been zoned for agricultural use.

The majority of states have no problems with growing as much fruit and vegetables as you want. However, if you think it would be an innovative idea to sell off any of these products to the public the situation changes.

A permit to sell products is required and this normally involves regular health inspections from the local authority.

The storage of grain might result in a visit from the FDA who may consider you are farming commercially and seize any surplus as you are subject to the same conditions imposed on farms in general.

If you have a significant supply of fertilizer the FBI might visit to assess if you are a threat to Homeland Security.

So, Is It Legal to Live Off-Grid?

In what might be an apt comment when asking is it legal to live off-grid it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees , at this time, living off the grid IS legal in the United States, providing you conform to certain legal processes and conditions set out in local government legislation.

It is when you do not adhere to these conditions or laws that you could find yourself being arrested.

The laws and how rigorously they are enforced differ in each state making it a beneficial option for anyone considering this alternative lifestyle to investigate the legislation of each state to ensure that you can adhere to the local code.

If you decide that you want to live off-grid in Florida, the local courts have ruled that to do so, you would be living in violation of the international property maintenance code.

Although this still does not make it illegal it has not stopped local authorities for arresting and fining some residence. Florida wishes to discourage this lifestyle.

Pennsylvania seems more interested in collecting fees from those who wish to live off-grid by insisting that you contact local government agencies to verify the ordinances of the area and have an engineering cost analysis as well as ensuring that any installation is made by a provider who has been approved by the local authorities.

Many states such as Arizona are imposing fees for anyone with solar power. With these and the many other fees and taxes that seem to be required, we must ask is the local government more concerned about health and safety or revenue that is lost to them and utility companies when people adopt this alternative lifestyle.

Unfortunately, although the legalities and the interpretation of the legalities may be frustrating, restrictions are essential to protect the countryside and indeed the community since everyone has a different idea of what the perfect lifestyle is. These differences need to be reconciled to allow a co-existence of a harmonious community.

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