Sunday, April 2, 2017

The "neo-rural" Part II: living with the law

Fellow bloggers: you had great questions to Part I! Keep them coming. Bill hopes to answer questions and respond to thougths when his internet-access is more consistent. Onto Part II:

As discussed in Part I of this series of posts on the "neo-rural", living off the land has returned to the limelight in certain circles in recent years, and living off-the-grid has become more appealing to many Americans who fear the environmental impacts of global warming and urbanization. In addition, "subsistence lifestyles" or "survival living" techniques that consist of following indigenous and traditional uses of resources and wildlife are becoming more important to people in states like Alaska and Idaho. (These lifestyles have always been of interest or, often, necessity, to indigenous peoples everywhere, but this is for another blog post. Also, a note: "survivalist" living is often associated with Christian "prepper groups", however I am not focusing on these groups in this blog post).

While researching a growing contingent of folks living far out into the hinterlands and by their own hands, I became curious about how a more rugged way of life could exist in the labyrinthine guidelines, regulations, and laws in our country. I added to my body of research about this, as well as continuing my interview with Bill Damn. He had some fascinating things to say about his interaction with the law and how the legal landscape colors his rural landscape.

Now, I must mention that there are some newer laws expressly to protect "subsistence" ways of life. For example, the Alaskan National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) has made it a priority to protect the “subsistence way of life for rural residents.” Under this law, reduced regulation of subsistence living (hunting, building, etc.) has been somewhat favored, including by the Supreme Court last year in Sturgeon v. Frost. See a recent blog post for other ways that Alaska in particular is supporting its rural communities. Despite there being some legal protections for people whose livelihoods are made far out in the wilderness, this is not the norm, however.

Legal codes have been largely been created by and for urban, suburban, or exurban folks, arguably at the expense of those who live rurally. An urban-centric legal structure might have seemed natural enough in the early days of United States jurisprudence. As Thomas Grey notes in a review of the book Modern American Legal Thought: Patterns of American Jurisprudence by Neil Duxbury, after the Civil War, during a time of great immigration also characterized by the aftermath of American slavery and the "closing" of the frontier, "American law had to come to terms with an economy built around large corporations and powerful markets, with the broad distribution of mass-produced consumer goods, with the social problems of urbanization . . ." However, this 150-year-old foundation means that our jurisprudence and black letter law often have negative impacts on people living far away from urban centers. Bill feels these negative impacts everyday: “I’d say my interaction with the law only happens in some sort of unfortunate circumstance . . . I’m not saying that everyone should totally disregard laws or anything, but it’s interesting – the way I live, I’m sort of made to feel like I’m doing illegal things all the time."

Bill isn't only made to feel that way. In many ways, his lifestyle is imbued with many shades of illegality, and he would certainly struggle more if he weren't so careful about where he lives geographically. For example, in Florida off-the-grid-living has been viewed by courts as violating the "International Property Maintenance Code" -- that's right, in Florida off-the-grid lifestyles are completely illegal. In addition, Arizona's government has tried to exorbitantly tax rooftop solar panels, and many other states may impose criminal charges against builders who non-commercial building materials, or cite them for not following extensive additional regulations and local ordinances when they're building in unconventional ways. Bill sees this all the time. For example, he told me:
"[M]y house is technically an illegal dwelling because it’s in a zoned county. What that means is that you need to have a permit for a permanent dwelling. There’s a lot of grey area out there because a lot of the dwellings are trailers or buses: they’re built onto something else. So you could technically say those are not permanent structures because you could drag them away even if they're not on wheels anymore. . .But my house is pretty permanent. ”
While many of his neighbors try to find loopholes like building "temporary" or "movable" structures (here's an example of structures that don't require permits in Sonoma County), Bill Damn wanted a house that took care of him and kept him more grounded, as we discussed in the last post. Though Bill's house is safer and more carefully-constructed than many of the structures on nearby land, his is actually more illegal. Bill told me about the "red-flagging" in his area, wherein the county occasionally comes out and flags structures to deem them uninhabitable. He also told me that sometimes they county will see a structure under construction and issue a stop-work order or a cease-and-desist. This doesn't worry him, however. He said:
"When I heard about [the county’s use of red-flagging] I wasn’t really worried about anything. I mean my thoughts on it the whole time have kind of been: ‘I’m just gonna build it and I’m going to do it well and if they ever start paying more attention out there, the house will just get grandfathered in.' To an extent, building codes are more applicable in more densely populated areas as a matter of safety, but what built my house was common sense. I had previous conventional construction experience and I was doing a lot of alternative construction at the time, so no one’s is going to drive by my house and think it’s going to fall over." 
An aside: I think of myself as also possessing a decent amount of common sense also; however I don't think my common sense would build a house.

Bill also told me about another less-than-legal part of his life: other than paying land tax which he called "super minimal," he hasn't paid taxes in a few years. He agreed that this wasn't legal grey area, but was in fact pretty black-and-white. When I pressed him about why he wasn't paying, he said he'd made a choice. "[A] big part of it [is that my life doesn’t contain a lot of paperwork] and that’s kind of a choice. I don’t really wish to operate in that traditional paradigm of having my labor taxed and redistributed in ways that I really don’t feel like I have any say in and that I largely disagree with.” Indeed there are plenty of people on the internet talking about how to use a rural lifestyle to avoid paying taxes (e.g. here and here). I was curious about how Bill fit into this, so I asked him what made him feel so disenfranchised. He said that he wasn't using county resources (water, sewer, etc.), and that the one thing the county did for him (grade his road), they did poorly and infrequently:
"I live out six miles of completely shit roads that are supposedly "county-maintained." The ambulance won’t go out there, the fire department can’t out there in time to save anything from burning down. The police don’t know their way around out there, and if you call them, they say they’ll try to send someone out eventually– that’s what they say.”
I could see how someone in Bill's position might choose to fly under the radar and separate his life and livelihood from a system that he doesn't feel supports him. Bill concluded our mediation on his personal interaction with the law by saying: "I’ve had some run-ins with the law that were pretty eye-opening in the past, so now I exercise a certain degree of caution. . .I try not to break more than one law at a time.” I imagine that this wild-west tactic is more common in rurality than I originally thought.

Though Bill has many feelings about how the law impacts his personal life and choices, Bill also builds houses for a living, so I asked: “What about the law in the context of building, do you think about the law when you’re building?” His retort made me laugh: "Well, I’ve thought about how I have no interest in interacting with it. . ." He said that he does think about permitting and whether structures are appropriately located (i.e. how residential the area is and what its zoned for). However, he avoids the permitting process himself, mostly through the use of owner-builder permits. These indicate that, in the eyes of the law, his client is essentially building the house personally. The permits allow Bill's team of workers to merely be "helping" on the build, while the owner takes on all the responsibility and liability of putting up the structure. This relationship can exist even if the owner-builder is off-site for the whole build and has no construction experience. They don't ask you to prove that you're really the one building the house when you go for the permit.

Bill told me that in his work, there are many ways of avoiding the law when the law doesn't care much about you:
“If you’re far enough out there and you’re not tapping into any municipal utilities, life is a lot easier: you can get away with a lot. You know, you just say you’re putting up a barn or a hunting cabin, and if you’re not running power lines or municipal water to it or using municipal sewage, they don’t give a shit because you’re not interacting with their systems."
It seemed to me that, while Bill wasn't bitter, he was acknowledging a characteristic imbalance about how the law deals with urban vs. rural communities. To him, it seemed logical:
"If you’re in an urban area you don’t want some [guy] throwing a fishing hook up onto the telephone lines to run an extension cord to his house. You can mess up a whole world of systems doing that. The same goes for tapping into a municipal water source or trying to use natural gas supplies: you’d blow your whole town up if you did that stuff wrong, you know? But when you’re building an off-grid structure, a lot of that stuff just isn’t applicable and, the [authorities], to some degree, don’t want to waste their time. This house I’m doing in Montana, all they require is an electrical permit and a septic permit. So we’re going to have a legit electrician that can come sign off on everything and he’ll probably pull the wire too.”
To Bill, it's pretty simple. If you can, stay away from the regulatory authorities. If you can't, make it as legitimate as you can --that is, break only one law at a time. Bill isn't trying to be unsafe. He cares very much about safety. Indeed, many unconventional builders are very particular about their construction, and often have a goal to build safer, stronger (this article talks about how Earthships supposedly "can withstand Armageddon"), and more healthfully than many modern dwellings.

As our interview wound down, I asked Bill if he thought our laws were built for how he wants to live. He responded:
“No, because I want to live to serve the people and I don’t feel like our laws do that at this point. I feel like an outlaw in a lot of ways. I feel like I’m doing something illegal every day of the week. It used to cause me a lot more anxiety, I guess, but now I’d rather not live than not live the way I want to live. . .I’d like to think I’m a conscientious person, and I think that [conscientiousness] has led me to this point [of living on the outskirts]. . ."
I asked him what that meant --what he was living on the outskirts of. He argued that "we get locked into supporting this larger economy which clearly doesn’t benefit everybody, because it’s not true laissez-faire economics, really, unless everyone is at the same starting line, which has never been the case.” He went on to say that this disparity seemed particularly true in the US, stating that some of the work that he has to fight hard to do "is welcomed with open arms and tearful goodbyes in under-developed countries."

Then he thought for a second, and added, "and even, actually, in under-developed areas in this country.” Bill has sought out projects that support under-developed folks in the US, including teaching middle-schoolers about sustainable building (pictured here).

It seemed to me that Bill's compassion for nature and other people are largely what led him to lead this life. At the end of our interview, I said, exasperated: "I just think it’s ironic that you’re an outlaw because you care so much.” To which, with his characteristic stillness and aplomb, Bill responded: “yeah, it’s interesting how much resistance you can run into for trying to tread lightly."

Amen, Bill.

For more resources on the lifestyle I've discussed here, check out the best locations to live off the grid, and some other ideas about the kind of living Bill Damn does.


Kyle said...

I'm glad to hear more from/about Bill Damn! Two thoughts jump out, which will surely be joined by others enthusiastic about this series.

First, I suspect that Bill Damn can get away with his rule breaking, such as he does, because of the "space tames law tames space" concept. (
/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2243757) The scale of development in rural places is generally too small to warrant a large buildings-standards bureaucracy, which facilitates rule breaking in those areas and in fact attracts would-be rule breakers to those places. And even when violations are caught, the follow-up may be slow or lacking.

Second, the fact that I am using the label "rule breaker" for Bill Damn and his activities is unsettling. I am sympathetic to what I understand of his project, and in an ideal world his conduct would be within bounds. He articulates his outlook using a kind of libertarian or even anarchistic* vocabulary. But I would push back and ask whether the solution is not *more* rules rather than fewer. One-size-fits-all rules work well for people who want one-size-fits-all homes. Can we not develop more nuanced building codes for off-the-gridders? By contrast, normalizing the open disregard of ill-fitting rules erodes the social protections they are meant to engender. Suppose that Bill thinks worker's compensation is a corrupt racket and doesn't have a policy for his workers. Suppose a worker is hurt and Bill is judgment-proof -- Bill's principled stand seems less gallant now. If one of Bill's construction clients needs to make an insurance claim, and the claim is denied because of "builder-owner" irregularities, has Bill done harm?

* I think it's unavoidable, but I do not wish for "anarchist" to operate as a pejorative. Robert P. Wolff wrote a compelling, short read called "In Defense of Anarchism" that very much resurrects the notion. (

Willie Stein said...

I think Kyle's onto something here in his articulation of why Bill Damn doesn't run into the law all that often-- rural areas often don't have a well developed building code enforcement regime, and that attracts "rule-breakers". The difficult thing is that in spaces of impunity, we run into exactly the problem Kyle articulates about the erosion of rule-following norms. For every well-meaning Bill Damn, there are those whose disregard of the law causes societal harm operating on the same first principles.

A libertarian approach might be to allow individuals to enforce a social order by reducing rules the state creates, and creating private rights of action. Citizens would enforce rules against each other only to the extent the conduct of individuals impinges on the rights of others. Like many libertarian ideas, this somewhat fantastical idea ignores power differentials between these hypothetical individuals and presumes universal "rationality"-- I doubt very much it would work.

Instead, I think a communitarian idea where the power to make and enforce rules is delegated to and centered in small localities might be the best solution for these kinds of "off the gridders". Rules could better reflect Bill Damn's situation while still accounting for bad actors. Bill's off the grid because it's too big to mean much to him-- maybe he'd get back on a much smaller grid?