Anyone who has been following my blog for the last few years will perhaps remember our long search for a place to settle down. The more we read about peak oil, climate change, and the global economy, the more concerned we became. Finding a place where we could settle down and essentially homestead seemed critical to our long-term survival. Also the more we read other homesteading blogs, the more we wanted to enjoy that lifestyle ourselves.
We wanted a place where we could, among other things:
- modify a house to be as energy-efficient and low-water use as possible
- get a couple of solar panels for emergencies (we knew we couldn't afford a whole system)
- set up rainwater harvesting off the buildings
- do landscaping and contouring to slow rainwater flow across the land for use in gardens
- grow as much of our own food as possible
- learn the edible and medicinal plants in the area - read about my wild harvesting here
- get chickens for eggs, meat (for the dogs), and fertilizer
- experiment with aquaponics, wicking beds, and other reduced water use gardening methods - again, we planned to feed the meat (fish) to our dogs
- find a bikable community to reduce driving
- transition to using mostly manual and human-powered tools instead of power tools
- form relationships with our neighbors and barter where possible
We didn't have much money to spend on a place so we were thrilled when, after about two years of searching, we happened across a place north of Tucson that had sat empty for a couple of years after being foreclosed upon. We weren't thrilled about buying a foreclosure or settling for a manufactured house, but we knew by then it was really all we could afford, and heck, being able to get under the house easily would make it that much easier to super-insulate and plumb for graywater.
The good things about the property were that it was in a somewhat rural area close to several small communities and not too far from Tucson. We could bike in the area and my sweetie could still commute to his job in the city. The area was about 750 feet higher in elevation than Tucson which meant slightly cooler temperatures and the possibility of more rain, especially with the proximity of the mountains. There was a medium-sized wash running right through the middle of the property so we knew there would be water available to utilize; we planned to plant trees on top of the banks and stabilize the banks themselves with desert-adapted blackberries. There were broad expanses of relatively flat areas that would work for gardens; one in particularly excited us with the possibility of turning it into a grain field. The soil was alluvial, a great mix of sand and dirt, with a bit of clay deeper down.
In the neighborhood, many people had animals. Lots of chickens but more importantly lots of large herbivores. A number of people had one or more horses, and one place, not too far away, had horses, a cow, a goat, and several donkeys ... and a huge pile of manure just waiting for me to ask for it. The composting possibilities were exciting!
The property was just under an acre, so there would be plenty of room to put in a shed. I had dreams of a greenhouse, an outdoor kitchen, clotheslines (finally!), and maybe even an outdoor shower. Water came from a community well, which seemed a more secure bet in the long run than the water company.
The Purchase & The Move
Buying it was very stressful. Within the first two days of listing, there were three offers on the place, including ours. This resulted in a bidding war and sense of urgency in the purchase. We won, but ended up paying more than 10% over the asking price. We knew it was worth it, though, as this place had almost everything we'd been looking for. We explored the neighborhood and saw that many people had animals, sheds, and corrals, but no gardens.
We were so excited when we closed on the house. This was it. Finally, the last place we'd ever live. The place where we could do everything we'd dreamed about. A place where we could weather through changes brought by peak oil, climate change, and even economic downturns.
My sweetie bought a used motorcycle to keep the commuting gas costs down. We rented a storage unit and started moving the stuff from our rental house garage into it until we could get a shed.
Moving was a chore as I'd acquired a lot of used canning jars and a lot of compost. But, with help from a few friends, we managed to get it done. Moving right about April 1st again should have warned us of the trouble to come, but we were excited to finally get to move forward with plans we'd been formulating for years. It took a few months to get unpacked and organized, sorting through our storage unit to find things we needed.
Because it was a foreclosure and had sat empty for a couple of year, we had some problems to repair and a lot of clean-up on the property. Shortly after moving in, too, our dog was diagnosed with two cancerous masses that had to be removed. Since one was on her foot, we had to build her a long gently-sloped ramp so she could get in and out of the house.
By the time we were somewhat settled, the hot weather had arrived and outdoor projects were put on hold. We still needed to move our belongings from storage, though so we bought a shed off craigslist. It was a good size and already built. All we had to do was hire a tow truck driver to move it for $250. Even with that expense, it was cheaper than building one ourselves. We got it moved into a good location, convenient to power, and unlikely to flood in the summer rains. We began emptying out the storage unit, although it was quickly clear that everything would not fit, especially since our Xtracycle bikes are long.
The Trouble Begins
About this time, the first of several disasters struck. My nephew died unexpectedly. This was devastating, not just for his loss, but for the lifelong pain I knew it would cause my sibling. Losing a child is very, very difficult, and I knew they'd been very close in the past few years.
Not too long after this, about the time I'd gotten through most of the grieving process, we received an official letter in the mail. Uh oh. That's rarely a good thing and this time was no exception. The county zoning department sent us a notification that our lovely porch spanning the entire front of the house was a code violation. What?!
I was to call and discuss it with the gentleman that dealt with violations. I called and found out that it had been written up by a field inspector in February. Upon further research, I found it this had happened just a few days before the house was listed on the market yet nothing had shown up in the disclosure paperwork. As the current owners, this was now our problem.
The problem, it seemed, was that the previous owners had built it without a permit. No problem, the zoning guy told me, just apply for a permit retroactively. We'd have to pay more, but it would clear the violation. When we got the paperwork, I started filling it out but had to call him several times with questions. The average citizen cannot easily access building codes so we really didn't know if it was built to code. The roof looked questionable as it was attached to the fascia of the house, something not allowed in the covered deck plans they sent as an example. (Apparently there are so many tornadoes - *snort* - in Arizona, they are worried one will blow the whole roof off.)
We sweated our way through the site plan - a drawing of exactly what's on the property, including the offending structure - and the application. When I went to file it with zoning, I was told it had to be approved first by the flood control department since our entire property lay in the floodplain. We knew that but didn't know they needed to approve anything and everything we wanted to do. It seemed like just a formality, although we would also have to get approval from them for our shed, too.
At the flood control district, our application triggered, for some unknown reason, an "administrative review" of our entire property. They sent us a five page letter of problems that we had to address. At this point, it was just a notification but the implication was that if the issues were not addressed, by the dates specified, we'd be taken to court.
The death of our dream of a homestead began that day but we didn't know it. We still thought we could get through this process relatively unscathed. Ha! Anyone who followed my blog this summer and fall knows the months of anger, disbelief, and depression that followed. Although their letter barely addressed the porch, I'll address it first.
By this point, we decided it would be best to have professional help, even though we were perfectly capable of remodeling the porch ourselves. There were other issues in the letter to address (including the shed, the engineered pad the house was on, and allowed property use). We hired a general contractor through a friend of a friend. She came out and hemmed and hawed. There were other problems with the porch besides where the roof was attached. The floor was "spongy." The supports underneath were not evenly spaced. But, she said, she'd go talk to them. See if they could waive the code to allow it since the porch was overall solid.
She reported back that the porch was a no-go. The roof was definitely out of code and due to the high placement of the windows on the house, there was no way to move it down to attach to the side of the house as required by code. That was the least of the problems, though. Supports underneath had to be evenly spaced so that the sheets of plywood fit perfectly from one support to the next, rather than leaving parts of each sheet hanging off past it. That was not something that could be fixed. It would have to be entirely redone, which would mean removing the entire existing covered porch and rebuilding it ... after applying for a new permit.
We didn't have money for that but we still had to get rid of the current one. It was solidly built, it would have held up just fine, but it did not meet the official requirements of the bureaucracy so we had to tear a 600 square foot raised covered porch off our house. We were determined to do this responsibly, though, so we dismantled it rather than just sawing it apart. We sold the railings, the custom-made wrought iron T-brackets, and the 4x4 roof supports. We gave away the 2x4s, the plywood, and the 4x4 porch supports (dinged up by their removal). We recycled the thousands of nails and screws removed by hand. In the end, the only thing that went into the landfill was the rolled roofing. It was simply not reusable nor recyclable.
Needless to say, doing it this way took a whole lot longer than it would have taken to take it apart for the trash. I had to get several extensions on our deadline. Besides dealing with the other issues - far more grave - from the letter, we were also dealing with my sweetie's mother's health issues.
She'd gotten some poor diagnoses on the health of her lungs and then slipped in her home, breaking her hip. She was brought to Tucson for the emergency hip replacement and following physical therapy. My sweetie had taken two weeks off work to finish up the porch removal and instead spent every day at the hospital. So, when the zoning guy told me on the phone that he supposed we could get another extension because we were cooperating, I was hard-pressed to remain pleasant. When he added, "We're not trying to make your lives difficult; we're here to help," I had to bite my tongue, hard, to avoid exploding at him. At this point, we couldn't afford to piss them off since they had so much control over our lives.
We finally got the porch removed, cleaned up the pad, and built a small set of new stairs to get into our home. He cleared the violation and, in his mind, figured our lives would be just hunky-dory as a result of all his help.
Yeah, right. All their help included a notification from the flood control folks that, sorry, they couldn't confirm that the pad for the house, permitted by them in 1999, was built correctly. We'd have to do that by either having them come out to inspect it (I'd rather invite a vampire into my home!) or hiring a civil engineer to write a letter confirming it was done to their specs. They included these specs and it was immediately obvious that we had a problem. We hired an engineer who confirmed that we would have to have some work done and he recommended an excavator to do it.
To the tune of 4,000 big ones, we got to have the pad upgraded to include a 3 foot "toe down" along the front and side of the house, and have the pad in the back brought out to the ten feet required. A toe down is an angled slope extending into the ground. To get the three feet required meant the guys had to dig a five foot trench, and they had to do it carefully because Blue Stake never bothered to show up to mark where the electric power came in. The toe down had to be lined with something like landscape cloth and then big rocks before being back-filled. For them to have access to the front yard and side, we had to remove half our wrought iron fence and two small mesquite trees, perfectly situated to provide future shade. The fence posts were, of course, set in cement. (More hard labor.)
By the time they finished, we didn't have the time or energy to put all of the fence back up. The extended toe-down also made it almost impossible to replace the fence where it had been along the side and it couldn't be moved further out easily for reasons to be divulged soon. We decided to close in a much smaller portion of the yard and sell the leftover fencing. We wanted to get this completed before having any inspectors out in case they decided we needed more permits to replace what they had made us remove.
I don't know if it is true, but the guys working for the excavator also told us that the county had not required toe downs like this back in 1999. Apparently, the county was making us bring our pad up to current standards under the guise of saying it didn't meet the 1999 requirements. Nice.
This is where the story becomes really heart-breaking. The letter from the flood control district informed us that our site plan was inadequate and they included a sample one of our property, along with a few problems they noticed in our plan.
Unbeknownst to us, there is a 75 foot "erosion hazard setback" from either side of the wash due to the amount of water that can flow through it during the monsoons. Anything built within this area must be approved by them and be built to withstand terrific flood conditions. For instance, a support for a wall would have to be something like 12" on each side and set in a deep, reinforced hole of cement. The bottom of any wall or fence would have to be a foot off the ground to allow water to pass through.
Hm, that would be a bit of a problem for fencing in the gardens we had planned. After all, the reason they need to be fenced is to keep out all the critters that want to eat the tender, tasty plants. These are small critters like rabbits, quail, ground squirrels, and pocket gophers to whom a fence with a one foot gap at the bottom would be like an engraved invitation to a succulent buffet.
Looking at the map, we discovered that almost our entire property, other than the pad where the house was and the small fenced front yard, fell within this setback zone. We also had to contend with 30 foot wide road easements on two sides of the property. In other words, we would not really be able to do diddly-squat with the land that we bought, the land that we thought we owned. Sure would have been nice for the realtor to have let us know about this, especially considering he knew our gardening plans and had years of experience in the area.
It gets worse.
I know, you're wondering, how can it get any worse? Well, not only was the setback an issue, apparently this was a "special" wash that had been designated a riparian area in the early 90s. As a result of this designation, nothing man-made was allowed within 50 feet of the wash. SAY WHAT?! Every single property along this wash in our area has structures, in some cases, HOUSES, within 50 feet of the wash. Every. Single. One.
But, the county decided to pick on us. We wouldn't even be allowed to build inadequate gardening fences at all. I asked and was told that gardening was fine in this riparian area, provided we didn't remove any of the native brush or trees and didn't fence it. In other words, we could plant trees and that's about it. No gardens, no aquaponics, no chicken coop, no outdoor kitchen, no greenhouse, no shed.
That's right. The shed was also an issue. Because it was within the erosion hazard setback, we had several choices. We could elevate it two feet off the ground, cut holes in the floor and sides for "flood vents", or move it. That summer, we had two and a half inches of rain in one hour. The shed had not flooded even though it was only sitting on 8x16" blocks. In fact, it had been perfectly situated to avoid being flooded. The only other place we could move it to had been ankle-deep in water during the big rain.
We debated about elevating it, but by this time we were extremely discouraged (and angry) about not being able to use our own property the way we bought it to use. We decided there was no point in staying on land that couldn't be "homesteaded" and made initial plans to leave. In the meantime, we had to wrap up all this stupid zoning crap. When I called the civil engineer to come do the final inspection on the pad so he could write the letter clearing up that issue, he wanted to also be able to tell them the shed was gone. Suddenly, we were under pressure to get rid of it and fast.
We posted it on craigslist, and eventually managed to sell it for two-thirds of what we'd just paid for it a few months before. To empty it out, as well as raise the money to pay the excavators, we had to sell a lot of our stuff - a good portion of my sweetie's tool collection, for one. When you're selling in a hurry, you don't get good prices. Brokering the shed deal was a nightmare, but it was a sad relief to see it get loaded up on the tow truck (again) and leave the property. Inside were the two 275 gallon water tanks we'd purchased for rainwater harvesting; we sold them to the same guy that bought the shed.
Could we have fought this?
Some people have not understood why we didn't fight this. We considered it but it would have been a losing battle. We had hired the general contractor and the civil engineer, both of whom talked to all the officials involved at length. They would not budge on anything required of us, even though there are numerous people in this area also in clear violation of the codes and even former owners of this property. In fact, the contractor felt so bad about our situation she didn't even charge us for her services.
Could we have sued the realtor for doing such a crappy job? Why didn't he do better research or help us to find out these issues? Maybe we could have sued, but we would likely have lost and spent every last penny on court costs. This is a conservative state (as you may have figured out from the recent news) with conservative courts.
What about the title company? Shouldn't they have disclosed at least the code violation? Alas, we found out that their "due diligence" covers only the title search. They do not search any other records. We were screwed there, too.
Could we have fought the county? Again, maybe, but we would have probably lost. And we didn't have the funds. This is a very pro-developer state where the individual Joe Shmoe has little power. Consider the cost for them to go after us in the first place. They did not receive one penny from us and they have lost money directly and indirectly as a result of their actions.
Our cash went to the civil engineer and the excavator. The county received no sales tax on the used porch materials, shed, and tools we had to sell, plus those people didn't have to go buy any new materials they might have purchased (and paid sales tax on). In fact, because I filed for an adjustment of our property value, they will now collect less property taxes from us. The accessed value of the porch was over $10,000!
What did this cost us?
Money. We figure in direct and indirect costs, we lost tens of thousands of dollars as a result of this baloney.
Time. We spent months dealing with the bureaucracy and getting rid of our belongings (including the porch) that could have been spent developing a better homestead.
Effort. The physical effort to remove the porch was intense, although the sledgehammer therapy had some benefits.
Trust. This was yet another lesson in a series of lessons we've gotten that you just can't trust a lot of people. (The "urban homesteading" community sure found this out with the Dervaes action!) People who seem to have your best interests at heart often do not. We learned we have to look out for ourselves, especially in any business transaction. This cynicism eats away at us, but we don't want to be screwed again.
Friends. I had several friends who apparently decided they did not want to deal with my anger, frustration, and depression during this summer and fall. To those that were there for me, thank you for not pulling your support when I needed it most.
Dreams. The biggest loss was that of our dreams. We are so beaten and battered now, driven away from our dreams once again by bureaucratic nonsense, that we don't even know what to strive for next. This is where the heartbreak comes in for me from reading all these blogs where people share their pictures and successes as urban homesteaders. We want to be there with you but have almost given up all hope of that ever happening for us.
I suppose this just became a 4-part series as I do not have the energy after writing all this to talk about our future plans and small hopes to still eventually do what we really want to be doing. I know this post was probably incredibly draining to read, but trust me when I say, it was far more draining to live.