Disclaimer: the author has a personal interest in this issue and has been trying to build a home in Sierra County. Also, the article is not meant to discredit any individual, or group of individuals.
There was a time when "rural" wasn’t a "lifestyle," it was a life. For a lot of the last 150 years people have pursued happiness by getting some untamed land, and through the work of their back and the sweat of their brow, turning the fruit of the land to their sustenance, and sometimes even their prosperity. It wasn’t necessary to have big money, just big dreams and a strong back, and luck.
There are a lot of places, and a lot of established families, right here in the county to demonstrate the point.
Is there anything left to that dream at all?
No room in the wilderness
The homesteader has become a symbol like the California Grizzly: a carefully reconstructed feature of the past in a present that no longer has room for it.
Consider our own Sierra County. It is very difficult and expensive to start from the ground and build your equity and your production base. There are houses all over the county which have stood a very good long time which would be difficult or impossible to build today.
Actually, that’s a misstatement: it would only be impossible for you or me. If you have money, if writing checks is easy for you, almost anything is possible. But, now, we’ve left the dream of the homesteader and entered the dream of the wealthy.
The key to homesteading is to turn time into property improvement. You start small, a small field, small house, small herd. With hard work and good luck, in a decade’s time you have a snug house, a nice pasture, a modest herd. Along the way you sell what you have extra of: cream, eggs, hams, logs.
But today to do anything small is very expensive.
It is much more cost effective to harvest 600 acres of timber than to harvest and sell twenty acres. It is much more cost effective to have a dairy of 500 cows than to go through the bureaucratic misery of trying to sell extra cream and cheese.
By far the most cost effective house, and the one that most neatly fits into the Planning and Building department’s intentions for your property, is a factory built home, pulled in and slammed down in two months, and then dressed up a little by a local contractor. True, it’s an off-gas nightmare, snapped together, glued together factory box house, but it is cost effective and the building inspector can come to work drunk and the place will still be legally "safe".
There is nothing inherently ineffective about doing things small and low tech, indeed, from the point of view of maximizing everything from chicken poop to night crawlers to construction scraps, the homesteader is king of efficiency. The high cost comes in bureaucratic oversight. It is government regulation that makes it so difficult for the small homestead to survive.
Who Doesn’t Love Homesteaders?
Everyone. Often, cheap land is far back, and a homesteader knows the value of affordable land. Being far out, though, often translates to being an outlaw. It costs more to do wage work in town because of the cost of travel. It can pay more in real terms and in emotional terms to stay home and work on the land. That leads to social isolation and mistrust. Homesteaders find their lack of participation difficult on a number of levels.
Cops, nosy people by profession and often by inclination, mistrust no-trespassing signs and locked gates. Dope growers and meth labs hide behind such signs; stolen cars and illegal aliens and poachers and god knows what else. People move to such places to be left alone, a sure sign of trouble.
Kids get home-schooled, which all by itself is suspicious to county social workers. Established neighbors tend to resent homesteaders, partly because now somebody new controls the old "such and such" land, restricting access for hunting, using creek water, and generally being too busy to socialize. When something goes missing everyone looks up the canyon for the culprit.
Fire defense planners hate to see structures that need defending spread out through the forest, often tangling agency responsibilities.
Many conservationists don’t like homesteaders because they become the leading edge of the "spread" of development. The homesteader is still a pioneer, and like all pioneers, they suffer from their own success, since the road back to their place encourages land along the road, or beyond the road, to become marketable, and bigger roads mean more people, and more people mean bigger roads. By no means all homesteads have this "spread" effect, but often they do. Further, pioneers die, and their kin don’t always love the land, and it gets split and sold, often in the next generation or two.
County bureaucrats can find homesteaders problematic. There is no reason to believe, even though County Boards of Supervisors love to uphold "rural values", that the Planning Commission or the Planning and Building Departments in any sense favor truly rural development. They have requirements that originate far out of the county which find their power in court. No county likes to be sued, and being sued for not regulating something enough is an avoidable danger. We have snow loads to worry about, and viewsheds and sensitive watersheds, and laws mostly adopted from larger counties to uphold. This is because larger counties can afford to go to court, and their rules become our rules by default.
The County Departments would be quick to say they have very little latitude, that if you follow the process you can build most things allowed, or "permitted" by law. That’s what I’ve already criticized in this editorial. In the strictest sense of the word it is true, but the building codes are authored and supported by corporations and encourage their products because the engineering is done. This country runs on money, and only a rich person has full liberties. Land use codes are found in laws passed for somewhere else, and court cases that happened somewhere else, to create land use laws that counter-intuitively apply here. People find themselves fighting for the right to build a house when they own hundreds of acres.
Something to Respond To
The County Board of Supervisors do have power to legislate, they typically follow the advice of county staff, and the example of other counties. I’m going to bring to the County some proposed ordinances regarding owner-built homes. These ordinances were proposed twenty years ago by a group of homesteaders called United Stand. They allow the owner-builder of a home more latitude than is typically available.
Really useful owner-builder codes trade something for something: they trade freedom for the owner for responsibility for the county. You can often build a home and live in it with your kin, but to sell it you have to demonstrate it is "up to code". This is an expensive and frustrating procedure which discourages selling the house, thereby keeping it in the family. The County doesn’t claim your house is safe for habitation: if falls down on you, it’s up to you. Many insurance companies won’t insure such homes, the owner almost certainly can’t borrow money on them. For many people, this is a good trade-off because it changes one’s house from a commodity to a home.
These, and other proposed ordinances from other places, could be the cornerstone of a brief rebirth of homesteading in the county. It might encourage people with kids, and it might encourage rural people from other areas who have been displaced because of development.
You’ll notice I specified a "brief rebirth." It will be brief because there is not limitless land available.
Improved owner-builder ordinances might also make it easier for farm families to build small houses for family members on ancestral property.
Making it easier for these classes of rural people to build will achieve a community goal of modest development with maintenance of the rural culture and, if you will, "lifestyle".
We’ll be reporting to you!