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Stealth Cob House within a Greenhouse...can you all help me keep a secret?

 
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Hi everyone,

Please excuse if this post is odd but this is my first time asking for help here even though I have read through thousands of posts from this wonderful site. I am currently in need of some very drastic help! (Also, sorry if this post is not on the right form. )

I am in a situation where I have found some amazing "unrestricted" land here in east Tennessee, only about 20 minutes from where I work in the city. It is zoned agriculture. It is EXTREMELY out of the way, though it is still within the major city's limits. It is a piece of land that is out on a dirt road well beyond any other neighborhoods, though other houses are scattered far apart nearby. In fact, there is only 1 home at the end of the road this land is on, and that's it. This major city has many many building codes, requirements, and septic requirements - you name it, they want someone out there to look at it first. It has been extremely disappointing and intimidating. I have read many posts about people who are trying to live freely on their land with minimal impact, and I do fall within that category.

To be honest, I don't really have the money to start trying to build what the city WANTS me to build on the property, but I am so eager to get out there and start living my dream. I want to explore natural building, and I have been to Cob workshops and been studying natural building for over a year.. I am very sure the city would not approve any of that. They do approve tiny homes, but again, with many restrictions. It is heavily wooded in the back, so I am thinking that may be my ticket to building cob.

I had an idea.. that perhaps I could hide my cob home within OR behind a greenhouse-like building with a large garden in the front. I did plan on using this land as a homestead, since animals are allowed, but only recently hatched a plan for trying to disguise my cob home BEHIND the garden, and potentially being able to say that I am using the land for my farming business/produce production on a small scale which would be why my car was parked out there/I was out there a lot. It also planned on restoring the tree line by the road rather than adding a fence of any kind. I want to be honest with the building department, and I really don't want to do something ILLEGAL, but I am STUNNED at how regulated land usage really is. The good news might be that this land used to look like a scrap yard, so I'm sure the neighbors would welcome a nice flourishing garden?

Question.. Has anyone built cob on their property/land without "permission"? Does anyone have experience with land zoned "Agriculture"? Any tips, opinions, or maybe even ideas?

I am 100% willing to give more info if needed... Thanks!!!
 
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I am in a similar situation to you.  I've passed up tract after tract of land within the city limits because of code.  It's not that I want to skirt safety concerns, but its because a round home simply does not fit into code.  "Are your floor joists 16" on center?"  No.  No, they aren't.  I don't have any floor joists.  I don't have any framing studs or drywall.

I just know that the conversation is gonna go something like "can I Live here?"  "No.  No, you can't."

If you build your home there in secret, then you are building your homestead on fear and secrecy.  You will always have in the back of your mind, what if someone finds out, or something crazy like a fire or sewage leak happens, and then you're evicted and your house torn down.  

By the way, here they use Google satellite to detect changes in a property for tax assessment purposes.  So if your home can see the sky in any way, they can see your home.

There are two routes I am exploring.  One is, buy light industrial land or agricultural as you have done, then set up a corporation.  That's very easy to do. This corporation is about, say, permaculture studies and education. Nothing you buy belongs to you, it belongs to the corporation.  The point of the land is not a residence, it is a caretaker or an education center. Then all you need to do is get an occupancy permit for one of the buildings.  I recommend you make the bathroom look very familar to them.  Getting an occupancy permit is easier than getting your house inspected.  Technically they are the same criteria but you'll get different inspectors, or the same inspectors who are expecting something out of the ordinary. Your home will receive a "Maximum occupancy" designation but you don't care about that, right?  As long as the number is as big as your family size.

The second route is an architect's stamp.  If you draw up detailed plans, either by yourself or with the architect's help, and the home meets the architect's standards, she might stamp your plans as verified.  I've heard mixed things but where I am the general rule is an architect's stamp supercedes a standard city inspection. Architects vary but I'm expecting to pay about $15,000 for this.

I'm doing what I can to minimize that cost by researching as thoroughly as possible and making scale models of what I intend to build so that concerns can be addressed head on.

Good luck!



 
Atomo Paz
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Rob Lineberger wrote:I am in a similar situation to you.  I've passed up tract after tract of land within the city limits because of code.  It's not that I want to skirt safety concerns, but its because a round home simply does not fit into code.  "Are your floor joists 16" on center?"  No.  No, they aren't.  I don't have any floor joists.  I don't have any framing studs or drywall.

I just know that the conversation is gonna go something like "can I Live here?"  "No.  No, you can't."

If you build your home there in secret, then you are building your homestead on fear and secrecy.  You will always have in the back of your mind, what if someone finds out, or something crazy like a fire or sewage leak happens, and then you're evicted and your house torn down.  

By the way, here they use Google satellite to detect changes in a property for tax assessment purposes.  So if your home can see the sky in any way, they can see your home.

There are two routes I am exploring.  One is, buy light industrial land or agricultural as you have done, then set up a corporation.  That's very easy to do. This corporation is about, say, permaculture studies and education. Nothing you buy belongs to you, it belongs to the corporation.  The point of the land is not a residence, it is a caretaker or an education center. Then all you need to do is get an occupancy permit for one of the buildings.  I recommend you make the bathroom look very familar to them.  Getting an occupancy permit is easier than getting your house inspected.  Technically they are the same criteria but you'll get different inspectors, or the same inspectors who are expecting something out of the ordinary. Your home will receive a "Maximum occupancy" designation but you don't care about that, right?  As long as the number is as big as your family size.

The second route is an architect's stamp.  If you draw up detailed plans, either by yourself or with the architect's help, and the home meets the architect's standards, she might stamp your plans as verified.  I've heard mixed things but where I am the general rule is an architect's stamp supercedes a standard city inspection. Architects vary but I'm expecting to pay about $15,000 for this.

I'm doing what I can to minimize that cost by researching as thoroughly as possible and making scale models of what I intend to build so that concerns can be addressed head on.

Good luck!





We seem to have really similar ideas! My secondary idea was to start a small "retreat" center, since I am really close to a lot of yoga instructors and healing arts centers here in town. In fact, I am a massage therapist who specializes in pain therapy and holistic remedies.. it would work. If I built a building as a part of an LLC business, or CORP., would that building need to meet the same requirements as a traditional home? Even if I tell them I'm not occupying it as a residence, is it still going to get hit by building codes? Or does that mean that they just have to be sure the building is safe enough to occupy, and not "live" in which might take more steps?

I really agree with what you said about living in fear on your own land. I don't want to do that at all, and I know it gets hairy when it comes to actually putting plans into reality rather than just dreaming them up. I think of it like trying to get creative with this local government while joyfully refusing to pay to play their game on certain things. I don't think I could afford an architect's stamp sadly. I'd like to build on this land legitimately even if they don't immediately say "YES" to cob/natural building. Honestly, I am just dreading the fees that might come with it. I can't even get the county to answer my phone calls or messages regarding it.
 
pollinator
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I recommend building a earth sheltered house, live in it for 10yrs (120months) and take the money that you saved from not paying rent (100,000) and build a city legalhouse.

If possible before you start get a permit for a greenhouse and shed, that way when they look on google maps and see a park car, few solar panels, etc. It will not be too suspicious. And with a permit for the greenhouse you can get a water connection and without a matching sewer connection. Likewise when you get a electricity/cable/tv, it will not raise any flags, you could even get a mailbox.

You could just build a greenhouse and the put a tent/yurt inside of it, but doing that for 10yrs seems very hard.
 
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you say you found the land. I'm guessing you have not bought it yet. one thing to think about, you say it looked like a scrap yard, well in that case theres no telling what kind of contaminants might be in soil. how much oil and grease, glycol radiator fluid and whatnot has been dumped there. I'm in a very rural part of east Tennessee and if you put in a proper septic that's the only permit there is here, you can build whatever or however you want. there was a big county commission meeting last year about permits and council decided no permits, no building inspectors or any of that would be in this county. if you want power from power line, power coop will have to inspect before they will make connection. that's it that's all there is. if you follow the rules you wont be a foul of the law.
just $0.02 from an old phart
 
S Bengi
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You mentioned that you want a cob house with 24 inch exterior wall and huge roof overhangs. What will the following parts be built from:
Foundation: Concrete?
Floor: Concrete Slab, Plywood+Lumber?
Stem Wall: Concrete?
Roof Bond Beam: Lumber?
Roof: Lumber + Plywood + ?
Insulation: Foam, Hay?
Interior Walls: Lumber and Drywall?

There are house use strawbale for insulation and then add cob on the exterior of the walls.
 
Rob Lineberger
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Atomo Paz wrote:  I am a massage therapist who specializes in pain therapy and holistic remedies. it would work. If I built a building as a part of an LLC business, or CORP., would that building need to meet the same requirements as a traditional home? Even if I tell them I'm not occupying it as a residence, is it still going to get hit by building codes? Or does that mean that they just have to be sure the building is safe enough to occupy, and not "live" in which might take more steps?



Yes, I too seem to be always in the planning stage, but I think I'm getting somewhere.

I don't know where you are, but in the US it is better to be a C-Corp than an S-corp or LLC.  You'll have to get a board of directors, but if you have a few friends that's no problem.  You also have to hold an annual board meeting. C-Corps give you some tax advantages and protections.

You'll definitely tell them you plan to live on the premises as the caretaker.  This isn't a dodge, its just a way to handle the whole process outside of the typical 5 minute home inspection with a bunch of "NOs" checked.  This is an opportunity to explain that you are exploring sustainable home technologies for low income families, and that's why everything looks so weird, but that you took code into account, and here's my list of materials with flame test ratings, etc etc.  It's just a slightly easier pitch for those light industrial type places.
 
Atomo Paz
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S Bengi wrote:I recommend building a earth sheltered house, live in it for 10yrs (120months) and take the money that you saved from not paying rent (100,000) and build a city legalhouse.

If possible before you start get a permit for a greenhouse and shed, that way when they look on google maps and see a park car, few solar panels, etc. It will not be too suspicious. And with a permit for the greenhouse you can get a water connection and without a matching sewer connection. Likewise when you get a electricity/cable/tv, it will not raise any flags, you could even get a mailbox.

You could just build a greenhouse and the put a tent/yurt inside of it, but doing that for 10yrs seems very hard.



Yes! I love this idea. I actually got in contact with the building department today. It turns out we are not in a city boundary but in a county boundary, so that CAN, in theory, make it easier. They still require you to have electric and water hook ups before you are granted the ability to "occupy" your home. However, Tennessee allows the right to farm, which basically means that I can construct or erect any structure without permit as long as it pertains to agriculture or farming. The greenhouse would be permit free and easy to build. Additionally, the land is on quite a slope I found out today.. I'd say it's mostly sloped with no flat portions. So my plan was to use an earthen/grass roof and dig slightly into the wall of the slope so that my cob home would be hidden from the road by the slope, and the grass top would look like a continuation of the slope.

My only problem with this is 1 that I am terrified of going through with this! Lol. Second, I KNOW it would take so long to get any electric or water available out there since the nearest house with a water hook up is still about 200 feet away and around a wooded curve. They quoted me an estimate of about $20,000. WHAT?!
 
Atomo Paz
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S Bengi wrote:You mentioned that you want a cob house with 24 inch exterior wall and huge roof overhangs. What will the following parts be built from:
Foundation: Concrete?
Floor: Concrete Slab, Plywood+Lumber?
Stem Wall: Concrete?
Roof Bond Beam: Lumber?
Roof: Lumber + Plywood + ?
Insulation: Foam, Hay?
Interior Walls: Lumber and Drywall?

There are house use strawbale for insulation and then add cob on the exterior of the walls.



Hi again! :) So since it seems the land has no genuine water or electric hook ups and no pre-existing septic fields.. looks like I'm free to explore this acre however I see fit..

For the cob home I was thinking of using strawbale, and coating the outside with a thick layer of cob. I understand that strawbale tends to decay as it is a natural material, but it might be a better place to start for me. For the foundation, the surrounding ground near where the house would be best situated is actually somewhat akin to sheet rock. There are large rocks and boulders around since its pretty far up in the mountain-y area. I want to use plywood and lumber, since I think concrete at the moment would be better reserved for my efforts at building the main structure on the property that I will have to get a permit for. What are your favorite building materials for cob? What works best in your opinion? Thanks! :)
 
Atomo Paz
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I want to add an addition here:

I met some neighbors today. They were EXTREMELY nice and understanding. Little old woman! I explained to her that my goals are gardening and land improvement, and that we just don't want to be a bother. She said there was no way we would disturb anyone. I loved her! My only existing concern around that would now be that it seems the land was family land (like the surrounding land IS owned by.. someone? who lives nearby. It was 1 acre of the surrounding 10 that aren't for sale) The land was/is commonly used as a burning ground for old wood and things the family didn't need. There's a lot of debris like old wood, charred wood, buckets, trash, and things like that. Concerned about people potentially trying to come onto the property post-purchase.. any advice?

I am not afraid of being discovered, I just want to make sure I'm well hidden but well developed. Ultimately, I think I will be having to catch rain water since the $20,000 quotes to bring public water to the land just blew my mind. The man over the building and inspections board says he hasn't ever gotten a call over someone wanting to go completely off the grid, and he wasn't sure how it would happen since I needed "inspections and approval from the utility board" before I can "occupy" the home.

Overall, I think my cob """"shed"""" will be a nice place to """cool off""" while I'm there tending to the animals and plants and trying to improve the soil.

Still VERY open to ideas and especially critique! Thanks
 
S Bengi
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I would build the following things
A shed that is 10ft by 20ft with a loft - bed area or even a RV (a plausible answer as to why you were onsite all night)
A regular address in the city, for your tax return, banking, drivers license. (Probably a friend, cousin, partner home, that you sleep at, say once a month, this will 'prove' that you don't live onsite)
And finally your earth-sheltered house on the 1 acres. (on the outside it will be ugly/hidden aka not beautiful cob, but on the inside you can make it as cozy as you want)

You aren't just hiding your house from folks driving on the road but also from drones/satellites.  And also the sweet grandma that you met, her son-in-law works for the permit office, and guess what she innocently mentioned at the family BBQ on Sunday (I met a nice youngster who is living off the land in a hut next door).



 
S Bengi
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I think you might love this hidden house idea. It's made with lumber, dirt and plants. Let me know what you think of it.
https://permies.com/t/27725/Photos-growing-eco-buildings
 
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Atomo Pas wrote:

They still require you to have electric and water hook ups before you are granted the ability to "occupy" your home.

Off-grid with rainwater catchment just isn't as "weird" now as it was even 20 years ago. Part of convincing the locals that you have a plan and that it will work is to "do the math". For example, find your government long-term weather records (sorry - Canadian here or I'd give you the link!) and show that you've calculated how much water you need to hold in ponds and tanks to manage your animals, farm plants and yourself, even under near worst weather possible. There're actually grants in some places for solar systems. However, these alternatives cost, so make sure the cost isn't greater than what you've already been quoted. That said, ongoing costs are lower, so you pay more up-front but less carrying costs.

We have a 14' x 14' chicken coop the former owners built that doesn't show up on overhead survey because it's sheltered by two large cedars and tends to have cedar duff on it's roof, so building a large "trellis" for something like Kiwi vines and then carefully building underneath the trellis has potential, particularly if parts of the building are also earth bermed. That said, the comment from S Benji about the risk of being ratted out intentionally or accidentally is quite real, so finding reasonable ways to be within the law removes one level of danger. Codes are there for a reason - making sure you follow or build better than, the intent of the code (like two exits for fire safety) is important (because permies wants to keep all the creative people we can find who are willing to make the world a better place, so we want them all to stay safe!)
 
Atomo Paz
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S Bengi wrote:I would build the following things
A shed that is 10ft by 20ft with a loft - bed area or even a RV (a plausible answer as to why you were onsite all night)
A regular address in the city, for your tax return, banking, drivers license. (Probably a friend, cousin, partner home, that you sleep at, say once a month, this will 'prove' that you don't live onsite)
And finally your earth-sheltered house on the 1 acres. (on the outside it will be ugly/hidden aka not beautiful cob, but on the inside you can make it as cozy as you want)

You aren't just hiding your house from folks driving on the road but also from drones/satellites.  And also the sweet grandma that you met, her son-in-law works for the permit office, and guess what she innocently mentioned at the family BBQ on Sunday (I met a nice youngster who is living off the land in a hut next door).





I LOVE the hidden house link you sent in. It feels like exactly what I am going for! I laughed pretty hard about the family BBQ, but here in the south you're probably right on the money, lol. I am exploring things like "skid" foundations for cabins/small homes and things like that as well.. which might also make it simpler to manage a small eco-home/cob house. (Though I'm unsure how a cob house on skids would work unless it was a firm wooden/sealed floor for it).

I come from the van-life community, so small living and trying to be as efficient as possible isn't too far from home. I am just hoping that my cob design, in the winter, isn't revealed once all the trees shed their leaves and well.. there I'd be!

I have family in the city that will be letting me use their address and get mail there for as long as I need to, so nothing will be tied out there minus me just being out there. My only growing concern now is getting water out there. I'll keep everyone posted.. I think I'm going to make an offer on the land tomorrow.

 
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We dont have permits for anything we've done on our land. We wouldn't have been able to afford to do anything if we'd gone that route. My husband just noticed that Google Earth has finally updated and we're now visible.

We did make sure to build to code or better and take pictures as we built in case we need to deal with officials later on.

We also accept the fact that our place might be demolished. If that's the case, we'll peacefully leave...and then come back and build a stealth house, invisible from above. I'd really like to have one started already, but there's always so much else to do.

When we bought the property, there was a shed that was visible from the highway, built by the previous owner just before we bought the property. The shed was too tall to fit in the no permit needed category. Almost three years after it was built, the local officials contacted us and requested all kinds of information on dimensions, materials used, location in relation to property lines, etc. My husband got a little difficult, saying we didn't build this so it's not our problem. At the end of the day, the official really didn't want to deal with it either. He just wanted the $50 permit fee paid so he could mark the file closed and get it off his desk. So my husband submitted a ridiculous scrawl of a drawing with none of the information requested and the 50 bucks. Done. Admittedly, that's just a shed.

My husband's an engineer. He recently dealt with some people who were building an unpermitted, alternative type building. They were discovered and told to get an engineer to sign off on what they were building before they could continue.  They had a couple major structural issues that really did need to be addressed, but other than that, lots of rules were bent for these people. Again, everyone just wanted to get the file off their desk.

One more story. My father in law built a log house when his kids were young. The building official came and said, uhhh, you know you need a permit for this thing, right?" FIL shrugged and kept building. After a couple more visits, a stop work order was posted. FIL framed it and finished his house. Never heard from anyone again.

Especially in a small town, no one wants to be the person who boots someone out of their home. Now, I wouldn't recommend building a half a million dollar house, counting on a stranger's goodwill. However, a tiny house that set you back a few thousand dollars or less? We decided we're okay with it, in this area of the world, country, province anyway.
 
Atomo Paz
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Jan White wrote:We dont have permits for anything we've done on our land. We wouldn't have been able to afford to do anything if we'd gone that route. My husband just noticed that Google Earth has finally updated and we're now visible.

We did make sure to build to code or better and take pictures as we built in case we need to deal with officials later on.

We also accept the fact that our place might be demolished. If that's the case, we'll peacefully leave...and then come back and build a stealth house, invisible from above. I'd really like to have one started already, but there's always so much else to do.



Thank you so much for your response here. You have no idea how helpful it has been to have the ear of people who live this way and/or have considered it heavily or done it themselves. With the help of you all I learned to also ask about the requirements of engineer/architect stamps - and found that Tennessee does NOT require architect stamps on single family dwellings, just engineer stamps for things that might need approval. I have slightly modified my plans to include immediately submitting for building permits and approval once we purchase the land, and putting together a huge packet on natural building, and include as many details as possible (including the mixture ratio for my walls over the hay). All while I build one on the back of the lot, both as a test and a shelter as I move through that process.

I plan on taking many pictures like you did and putting together a photo album of everything used and how we used it along with documented measurements. I so admire your family's guts! I wish I wasn't so afraid of things like that sometimes, but I guess the more you build the thicker skin you get about people telling you what you can and cant do.

Thank you so much!
 
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bruce Fine wrote:you say you found the land. I'm guessing you have not bought it yet. one thing to think about, you say it looked like a scrap yard, well in that case theres no telling what kind of contaminants might be in soil. how much oil and grease, glycol radiator fluid and whatnot has been dumped there.



Ya, this. My friend bought a property.. lovely place i  spring, with lush green everywhere... hiding the enormous piles of vehicle related junk. An awful lot of nastiness has leaked out onto that land.. there was a pile of transmissions the size of a small bus, and one of batteries the size of a car...
 
pollinator
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I honestly don't even know how to begin in responding to this thread. But I will try, with the best of intentions, and hopefully without giving offense, because everything is so damned political these days.

On the one hand, I have some sympathy with the desire to build as you please, without the annoyance of petty bureacratic overreach. I have seen some overreach myself, and it's just silly. I have also seen situations where they should have acted and did not, to my detriment. Regardless, building without permits will hit the fan at some point; certainly when the property is sold, and the buyers and their lawyers do their due diligence, and the municipality blocks the sale until key requirements are met (at the seller's expense).

On the other hand, building and safety codes evolved because of disasters and tragedies, meaning there is reason to follow them even when inconvenient -- to some degree they represent a collective knowledge and memory that very likely exceeds your own. Sometimes development rules also prevent neighbours from engaging in nasty blood feuds, in litigation or otherwise.

One thing I think I should address is the ongoing notion that things not displayed on Google Earth are not visible. Please be clear on this: Google Earth is a joke. Outside of urban areas it's years out of date. If you have built permanent structures, your local municipal jurisdiction has knowledge of them in a short time frame (weeks/months). I use  Geographic Information System (GIS) imaging data in my work, at nowhere near the highest resolution available, and I can spot every clearing, doghouse, outhouse, fence, cutline and well-travelled vehicle trail. This is commercial satellite data, and I don't mean to send anyone down the path of paranoia; GIS systems add immense value in many big picture ways. Just be advised, simply, that they exist; and your persistent activities on the land are clearly visible.

My 2 cents.
 
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Atomo, strawbales do not decay in strawbale homes.
Once coated nothing happens to them.
I would think about using some concrete in a small home, its such a practical material.
With the sloping land, it may be possible to build a wall on the downside with rocks and fill the void created.
Then put a concrete floor and cap over that and use the concrete to bolt steel columns to to construct the roof.
Even if the steel is used to get a frame up that you then add timber etc too.
S Benji's ideas are good IMO.

I encourage rainfall collection, details are in my signature below.
And with some solar and composting toilet the house will be a great home.

I have even seen water tanks used as bathrooms etc and they just hide themselves.
 
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Great thread. I too am planning to hide a natural building structure in my woods one day.

Totally different situation, we already have a big rambling “to code” house on the property. I simply want to try building one, and use it to “camp out” in spring and fall and be more interactive with our property. If I put it at the wood edge as I’d intended it could easily be seen from the road. I also don’t want to deal with zoning/building code issues when we resell the house. If it’s buried in the woods it won’t come up during the sale. No one will walk the 3 acres of woods before buying.

I hate building codes for personal property. I understand if insurance companies won’t cover it, and understand if it can’t be re-sold if not to code, because those things affect others. But telling me I can’t build what I want on my land for me to sleep in is a bridge too far.
 
Jay Angler
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S Greyzoll wrote:

I hate building codes for personal property. I understand if insurance companies won’t cover it, and understand if it can’t be re-sold if not to code, because those things affect others. But telling me I can’t build what I want on my land for me to sleep in is a bridge too far.

There is no code in my province that says you can't pitch a tent and sleep in it. In fact that's what a young man was doing when a tree fell on it and he's now in intensive care.

It's *not* about bridges and being told what to do - it's about safety. There are plenty of ways to discretely build experimental, alternative shelters, but codes contain valuable information about what will improve your odds if something bad happens. Rules like "always have two possible exits from a bedroom" (usually a door and a window) have been proven to increase the odds of surviving a fire, which a local lady experienced when she had to toss her baby out that window to a good samaritan who passed it off and then helped break her fall - they'd have died before the fire department could reach them otherwise. So please try to change the wording in your head to - "what parts of this code are possible and intelligent to follow while I build myself a "nature retreat" hidden in my forest".  We have too few people who see the permaculture lifestyle as beneficial and sustainable - I want to keep all our members alive as long as possible!
 
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Built to code means bare minimum required to legally sell this to my enemy, and for the 'banking folks' to underwrite it and insure it. So it is always a good idea to build even better than code. The problem that really pops up is when the gov start charging impact fees of $16,000. Utility connection cost of $30,000. And force 3rd party labor/signature/stamps because other folks have abused the system and so now they have extra rules.

The code book that government officials use allow strawbale and just like lumber, they dont rot and last along time in a house. I would use words like natural plaster/natural stucco vs cob/dirt.

And yes they will know that you have something on the property the trick is to have a permit on file for a greenhouse or a compose area(earth berm house), or a pergola.
 
S Greyzoll
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Jay Angler wrote:S Greyzoll wrote:

I hate building codes for personal property. I understand if insurance companies won’t cover it, and understand if it can’t be re-sold if not to code, because those things affect others. But telling me I can’t build what I want on my land for me to sleep in is a bridge too far.

There is no code in my province that says you can't pitch a tent and sleep in it. In fact that's what a young man was doing when a tree fell on it and he's now in intensive care.

It's *not* about bridges and being told what to do - it's about safety. There are plenty of ways to discretely build experimental, alternative shelters, but codes contain valuable information about what will improve your odds if something bad happens. Rules like "always have two possible exits from a bedroom" (usually a door and a window) have been proven to increase the odds of surviving a fire, which a local lady experienced when she had to toss her baby out that window to a good samaritan who passed it off and then helped break her fall - they'd have died before the fire department could reach them otherwise. So please try to change the wording in your head to - "what parts of this code are possible and intelligent to follow while I build myself a "nature retreat" hidden in my forest".  We have too few people who see the permaculture lifestyle as beneficial and sustainable - I want to keep all our members alive as long as possible!



I appreciate your point of view, but do not share it. Yes, codes are about safety. But part of my personal liberty on my own property is the freedom to take my own risks and be accountable for the consequences. There is nothing stopping me from felling trees on my property, a much riskier endeavor than a small cabin rarely used. I am fine with government protecting people from the dangerous actions of others, but protecting me from myself? Of course I will build as safely as I can. But that build will in no way be “to code” and I don’t think it should have to be.
 
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I feel for you. I had to opt-out of buying a wonderful property because 6 months prior the county "updated" regulations, making my building plans "illegal".  This may sound odd, but if you know the "law and regulations" well, that knowledge may be your best- friend.

Example: what are the size requirements for needing an occupy certification and or zoning permit? Understood that "tiny" homes are not allowed, but what about mobile? Meaning if your home is mobile-first and "tiny" second in some places you can beat the codes. What about other You mentioned Agri- Zoning, what about other Zoning options? School, Church, Recreational campground, Storage facility, etc.

Definitely look into the agriculture uses for land, some places have right-to-farm laws that allow for alternative living spaces for livestock caretaking.

"Hiding" is not something you can likely do forever, and if found out could leave you homeless. Finding a legal end-run around the regulations in a way that IS legal AND allows you to build in the way you want and within your budget is likely possible.
 
Atomo Paz
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S Bengi wrote:Built to code means bare minimum required to legally sell this to my enemy, and for the 'banking folks' to underwrite it and insure it. So it is always a good idea to build even better than code. The problem that really pops up is when the gov start charging impact fees of $16,000. Utility connection cost of $30,000. And force 3rd party labor/signature/stamps because other folks have abused the system and so now they have extra rules.

The code book that government officials use allow strawbale and just like lumber, they dont rot and last along time in a house. I would use words like natural plaster/natural stucco vs cob/dirt.

And yes they will know that you have something on the property the trick is to have a permit on file for a greenhouse or a compose area(earth berm house), or a pergola.



I love this. I will definitely watch my words when I submit for approval. I am loving to read all of the colorful and different opinions of everyone here, it has drastically expanded my point of view and I'm so glad I decided to make an account here to start trying to talk about it.

I would like to throw my 2 cents back in and say that my main pain with the building code adventure at the moment, is that it doesn't really seem geared towards protection in my county - more towards ensuring the buildings are on the grid and built borderline the same, and I think that seems to be everywhere.. I'm not going to argue that an exit door in the back of the house would be perfect and keep me safe in the event of a fire. Or that I need to have proper supports for my roof, or maybe even a smoke detector. My problem is with the uniformity and the rules being written around enforcing the grid, house size, and forced limitations on random things even - like loft height, ladder step spacing.. and etc.

I'm frustrated because TN rushed to regulate tiny homes, because we have a lot of people who come to the Smokies and camp in them, and the land here is so pretty.. why WOULDN'T you? The laws they wrote are insanely restrictive, and basically just them saying "Sure you can build a tiny home but it'll be just that - a tiny version of a code regulated and normal house. That's it." They even require special permitting for composting toilets, enforce hot and cold water production (electricity, lol), and regulate the type of foundation it "has" to sit on - can't even be on a trailer. THAT'S the kind of building regulation I'm fed up with at the moment, not someone coming out there and telling me my walls might fall in!

When I did get someone to call me back from the county, he just told me he didn't know the answer to any of my questions. He said off the grid situations are typically approved with an engineering stamp. I am going to be collecting and using rainwater.. I just have so much concern that they're going to stop me from developing on my own property that I'm going to be taxed for, lol. I plan on keeping this thread updated as I seek approval and form my plans, so that way if someone finds the fossils of this post, it may be of help.

I have decided to make a large packet for the submission of my building permit, almost like a power point on natural building and why I want/am choosing to be off the grid. I will include all the normal and factual measurements required, but I'm going to try and pour my heart into my explanation. If they turn me down, looks like I'm throwing up a greenhouse afterall. :) I'm really going to be asking nicely, but at the end of the day, I feel like I'm not asking them - I'm telling them! I should be able to do it and work along with them to meet in the middle.

I will post my drawing plans for my cob house here as soon as I make them!
 
Atomo Paz
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Andy John wrote:

Example: what are the size requirements for needing an occupy certification and or zoning permit? Understood that "tiny" homes are not allowed, but what about mobile?  



Here in Tennessee, tiny homes are allowed, they are just strictly regulated. Legally that looks like this: You CAN build a house that is 400 SQFT or LESS, BUT - it MUST have utility hook up with approval from the utility board here, you have to have electric, you have to have fire exits, and it HAS to be on a foundation. They basically 100% blocked people from parking a tiny home trailer on their land because in Tennessee, mobile homes must have a foundation under them, and be "secured to the ground in methods that adhere to building code". There are other regulations too - like on ladders, composting toilets, heating and air conditioning - it's nuts..

My plan for a cob home is going to be that it equals about 500 SQFT total, so it will not qualify as a tiny home. It will be a "smaller single family dwelling that uses a solar system and a rain water collection/filtration system." I will be building the foundation to code, and wooden framing this house. I will be insulating it with strawbale, and covering it with natural plaster (cob). Since the land is Agri, a lot is... allowed, especially rain water collection here. I think that I will be able to get some rules bent, as long as I present this correctly and with the right artistic rendering.

Coming @ the building board and not explaining why I'm passionate about this might just look like me saying "I'm going to live in a strawbale hut drinking rainwater and harvesting sunlight for my 1 lamp in the living room"  


You said you passed up your land.. what did the building board tell you? I know for a fact that the utility board here will not reach water out to our land so our options are rainwater or well water. And well water isn't all that possible either, because our land is sloped and more than likely dry since there aren't really any large trees on the property. We can take our offer on the land back if the utility board tells us something bad. If I can't get the building board to answer us on the solar system/rain water system.. that would stop any house being build there, regardless of if it was cob or "regular".
 
Jay Angler
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Atomo Paz wrote:

They basically 100% blocked people from parking a tiny home trailer on their land because in Tennessee, mobile homes must have a foundation under them, and be "secured to the ground in methods that adhere to building code".

Are you guys a major tornado risk area? I know there are some places in Canada that have found various sorts of mobile home communities at greater risk than regular housing if a tornado goes through, and I expect hurricane risk would be similar, but yes, otherwise, those rules smack of "everybody has to be like everybody else". Considering houses now tend to be built to last about 70 years, when they used to easily last over a hundred, and some sorts 300 years, I'd been studying the rules so you can do as you plan - find the legal loopholes, exploit them, and either build something for the next generation or at least something that will biodegrade and turn into soil!
 
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Atomo Paz wrote:

Rob Lineberger wrote:

There are two routes I am exploring.  One is, buy light industrial land or agricultural as you have done, then set up a corporation.  That's very easy to do. This corporation is about, say, permaculture studies and education. Nothing you buy belongs to you, it belongs to the corporation.  The point of the land is not a residence, it is a caretaker or an education center. Then all you need to do is get an occupancy permit for one of the buildings.  I recommend you make the bathroom look very familar to them.  Getting an occupancy permit is easier than getting your house inspected.  Technically they are the same criteria but you'll get different inspectors, or the same inspectors who are expecting something out of the ordinary. Your home will receive a "Maximum occupancy" designation but you don't care about that, right?  As long as the number is as big as your family size.



We seem to have really similar ideas! My secondary idea was to start a small "retreat" center, since I am really close to a lot of yoga instructors and healing arts centers here in town. In fact, I am a massage therapist who specializes in pain therapy and holistic remedies.. it would work. If I built a building as a part of an LLC business, or CORP., would that building need to meet the same requirements as a traditional home? Even if I tell them I'm not occupying it as a residence, is it still going to get hit by building codes? Or does that mean that they just have to be sure the building is safe enough to occupy, and not "live" in which might take more steps?

I really agree with what you said about living in fear on your own land. I don't want to do that at all, and I know it gets hairy when it comes to actually putting plans into reality rather than just dreaming them up. I think of it like trying to get creative with this local government while joyfully refusing to pay to play their game on certain things. I don't think I could afford an architect's stamp sadly. I'd like to build on this land legitimately even if they don't immediately say "YES" to cob/natural building. Honestly, I am just dreading the fees that might come with it. I can't even get the county to answer my phone calls or messages regarding it.



i've looked into this a lot, of course though it depends, specifically on your local codes.
BUT i want to say that getting the building certified and officiated as a commercial structure is more rigorous and requires more inspections and even very expensive equiptment ( like commercial kitchens, or health code things - OSHA, dept of labor stuff)

it would be better to go the residential / farm route. agricultural uses are the most lax, and small farms in particular have the most laid back standards.
i definitely also share the idea of building an agricultural building, and hiding a tiny house within it. this does work best on land that already has a legit house on it already. then it is very easy.

if you do want to do a business - a small scale home business DBA or sole proprietor is also much more relaxed standards. so basically think small home based business rather than corp/ LLC
 
leila hamaya
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you may be really into the straw bale cob idea, and already decided, but my favorite methods are either adobe block or stabilized block, slipstraw (also called light clay straw) with post and beam, and also i am fond of stone work, slip form stone or slip form anything - like slip straw.  i am also into soil crete, which is cement and subsoil/clay/sand.
more and more too i see the beauty of simple concrete blocks, especially for below grade applications.

well some food for thought. maybe i will be less lazy later and google you some links to explore. if you are curious look into slipstraw...or earth blocks.

another issue to explore for design and materials is that earth buildings and the humidity of greenhouses dont really play well. theres got to be some separation or ways of dealing with that clash. another reason i am more inclined to think on soil crete, stabilized earth, slip form stone rather than the raw organic cob / adobe/ etc
 
Jan White
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Douglas Alpenstock wrote:
One thing I think I should address is the ongoing notion that things not displayed on Google Earth are not visible. Please be clear on this: Google Earth is a joke.



This is a good point. I should have specified that we are now visible to the general public. We've been visible on GIS maps for a long  time - yes, in creepy detail.

In my area, building inspectors are swamped and not looking for extra work. Unless there's something they can't ignore (like a shed on the side of a highway), you probably won't be hearing from them unless someone complains. Being visible to the person noodling around on google earth looking for new quad trails opens us up to this possibility much more than before.

Like Andy mentioned below, a septic system (required for an occupancy permit) would have cost more than what we spent building our house, if you take into account engineering fees. All septic systems here need to be engineered. By the way, that's a septic system we'd never use since we have a sawdust toilet and use all our grey water on the gardens. Then there's the issue of getting certain vehicles and equipment up to our house to install the septic. If we'd rented equipment and done all the work ourselves, we might have been able to do the necessary road upgrades for less than we paid to build the house. Maybe. It just didn't make sense to go that route, even if we had the money.

As far as issues when selling the property, that's an important consideration, too. Again, I think it's good to look at what you're building, though. Anyone who's buying this property to build a conventional, permitted home is going to be spending all that money we didn't on septic, road upgrades, etc. They don't want our no plumbing, no wiring, $12,000 12x16' house. It's going to be bulldozed anyway.
 
Jan White
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S Bengi wrote:Built to code means bare minimum required to legally sell this to my enemy, and for the 'banking folks' to underwrite it and insure it. So it is always a good idea to build even better than code. The problem that really pops up is when the gov start charging impact fees of $16,000. Utility connection cost of $30,000. And force 3rd party labor/signature/stamps because other folks have abused the system and so now they have extra rules.  



I really like this.  My husband and I drive through a city near here occasionally when going to visit his family. We love to drive by the expensive new homes on the lake and watch and laugh as their built to code OSB roofs sag and the rafters get more and more visible.

We have a big problem with affordable housing in this province. The government keeps putting programs in place that are supposed to help. None of them address the real causes of the problem, which are the kind of fees you mention, building inspectors passing liability on to  engineers, expensive and unnecessary code requirements etc. etc.
 
Jan White
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Andy John wrote:

"Hiding" is not something you can likely do forever, and if found out could leave you homeless.



"Homeless" is not something to be feared if you own your own property. There's always something you can do, even if it's just pitching a tent.  Even I wouldn't be happy in a tent all winter, though
 
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""Homeless" is not something to be feared if you own your own property. There's always something you can do, even if it's just pitching a tent. Ohh how I wish this were true... I'd own land and be living on it right now if that were the case.

Were I am there are definately occupancy regulations for most properties on how long you can "camp" on even your own land.

Land that has "no covenants and or HOA's" and has access to water are rare here, and the guidelines are differnt for each County...
 
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Atomo Paz wrote: We can take our offer on the land back


Personally, I'd classify all the toxins in the soil as a deal breaker. I bought land so I can grow food, and was careful to get non-toxic soil.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Pearl Sutton wrote:

Atomo Paz wrote: We can take our offer on the land back


Personally, I'd classify all the toxins in the soil as a deal breaker. I bought land so I can grow food, and was careful to get non-toxic soil.


That's a valid point. In the "good old days" people burned anything and everything because "that made it all go away" and it was in the back 40 anyway, so who cares. Well, depending on what they burned, it's possbile that some of it didn't go away. I would ask some pointed questions about that.
 
Jay Angler
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Douglas Alpenstock wrote:

Pearl Sutton wrote:

Atomo Paz wrote: We can take our offer on the land back


Personally, I'd classify all the toxins in the soil as a deal breaker. I bought land so I can grow food, and was careful to get non-toxic soil.


That's a valid point. In the "good old days" people burned anything and everything because "that made it all go away" and it was in the back 40 anyway, so who cares. Well, depending on what they burned, it's possbile that some of it didn't go away. I would ask some pointed questions about that.

I agree, but also, wood chips and mushrooms a la Paul Stamets and other plants known to accumulate toxins which you harvest and send to the landfill can fix things if it's only a small area. At least the toxins would get cleaned up rather than left to migrate to the ground water.
 
Atomo Paz
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Incoming post dump!

A small update here for the fossil records as I have done a lot of digging. I worried about the legality of what building a cob home would mean, but I think I may have come across a document that completely saves me and my little cob house... and that's called Tennessee's "Right to Farm" law.

In case anyone is interested or is here in the future.. here is the moderately MASSIVE loophole I may have found that would allow my building to be pretty much.. instantly legal? Rather than continue to beat down the building code's doors on this, I turned to the legality of this matter and dove into property law. (Lord save me, lol)

The land I am building on is zoned "AGRICULTURE", meaning that the land is reserved for agriculture use as a means of preserving farm land in Tennessee. If you are producing produce, livestock, or any other agricultured "good" on a commercial level - you're farming, according to Tennessee's law. Commercial level doesn't have to mean CORP, because it can mean something smaller, like a small business LLC, or even selling to a farmers market. I take this next quote from "Tennessee's Law and Resources Pertaining to the Definition of Agriculture":

"Tennessee Law explicitly prohibits counties from regulating agricultural buildings in 5‐1‐122:

5‐1‐122.  Exclusion of agricultural buildings.  
The powers granted to counties by this part do not include the regulation of buildings used primarily for agricultural purposes; it being the intent of the general assembly that the powers granted to counties by this part should not be used to inhibit normal agricultural activities.
See Supporting Documents:
‐ Excerpt from: Shore v. Maple Lane Farms, LLC, 411 S.W.3d 405 (Tenn. 2013). (Page 26)"

Tennessee Law explicitly prohibits counties from requiring building permits for buildings used for agricultural purposes in 13‐7‐114:
13‐7‐114.  Construction ‐‐ Building permits ‐‐ Agricultural use of land ‐‐ Land located in special flood hazard area.

(a) This part shall not be construed as authorizing the requirement of building permits nor providing for
any regulation of the erection, construction, or reconstruction of any building or other structure on lands
now devoted to agricultural uses or which may hereafter be used for agricultural purposes, except on
agricultural lands adjacent or in proximity to state federal‐aid highways, public airports or public parks;
provided, that such building or structure is incidental to the agricultural enterprise. Nor shall this chapter
be construed as limiting or affecting in any way or controlling the agricultural uses of land.

(b) For purposes of this section, buildings used as residences by farmers and farm workers are "incidental
to the agricultural enterprise".

(c) (1) Notwithstanding subsection (a) or any other law to the contrary, a county participating in the
national flood insurance program shall regulate buildings and development on land located in a
special flood hazard area identified on the flood insurance rate map adopted by the county for
purposes of participating in the national flood insurance program, but only to the minimum extent
necessary to comply with the national flood insurance program.
  (2) Subdivision (c)(1) shall apply only to the regulation of buildings and development on land located
within the one hundred‐year floodplain.


Well.. okay. What does that mean? When I first started this thread I mentioned that I wanted to grow my own food, and potentially keep bees, and basically stick to growing food. There were earlier posts about starting an LLC or a CORP as a front, but in Tennessee, it's not a front. Tennessee allows for buildings to be erected without permit so as long as they pertain to the agriculture work on the land as seen above. That DOES extend, actually, to housing! There is a major supporting case for farm housing that Tennessee took as an example from a court in Arizona. The supporting case is documented within this law quote, and I will paste a little of it here. Here is another excerpt from Tennessee Ann. Law:

QUESTION: Does Tenn. Code Ann. § 13-7-114 exempt from county zoning regulation buildings used
as residences by farmers and farm workers?

OPINION: Because buildings used as residences by farmers and farm workers are “incidental to the
agricultural enterprise,” the provisions of Tenn. Code Ann. § 13-7-114 exempt such buildings
located on farm property from county zoning regulation, unless the buildings are located on farm
property “adjacent or in proximity to state federal-aid highways, public airports or public parks.”

ANALYSIS: The statute in question, which is part of the Tennessee statutory provisions governing
zoning in Tennessee counties codified at Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 13-7-101 to -119, provides that
[t]his part shall not be construed as authorizing the requirement of
building permits nor providing for any regulation of the erection,
construction, or reconstruction of any building or other structure on
lands now devoted to agricultural uses or which may hereafter be
used for agricultural purposes, except on agricultural lands
adjacent or in proximity to state federal-aid highways, public
airports or public parks; provided, that such building or structure is
incidental to the agricultural enterprise.
Tenn. Code Ann. § 13-7-114. This provision applies to counties only and has no application to
municipalities. See Tenn. Att’y Gen. Op. 10-12, at 2, n. 1 (Jan. 28, 2010).
By its plain language, this statute provides that the general zoning powers given to county
legislative bodies generally do not authorize the counties to require building permits or otherwise
regulate buildings or other structures on lands devoted to agricultural purposes, provided such
buildings or structures are incidental to those agricultural purposes. Thus, in deciding whether
buildings or structures are excepted from the county’s zoning powers, the question becomes
Page 35
whether those buildings or structures are “incidental to the agricultural enterprise.” Tenn. Code
Ann. § 13-7-114.


This code goes in to explain that so as long as your buildings are not visible from government/county property and etc, that they are well within my right to be housed on my own land while I tend to my business farming. What are the general opinions on this? I am sorry for the text dump, but I wanted to leave a good record for anyone after me. I still intend on concealing my build away from the  gravel road, but now after reading this, I know it is well within my right to live on the property I am farming on even if I haven't obtained a permit for my build. My cob house will be built better than code, and tucked away, but since I am going to be starting up a small LLC business, it's within my right. The land will not be used residentially, but agriculturally, and the house is just a place for me to stay while that's going on. I still want to be off the grid and have thought up a nice rainwater system I will post pictures of, but otherwise I have thought about assembling a shed near the front of my property so I can reach electric to it and potentially wifi. This will, of course, be done under the name of my small farm and the reasoning is so that we can use power tools or anything else we may need on the land. The inspector can check out the shed and give me a permit based on THAT wiring, and won't have to come anywhere near my actual residence since I would be able to have electricity at that 1 building - which you also don't need a permit for, which is also in the right to farm law. Solar panels, parking, and etc are all again, within agricultural understanding in Tennessee. This DOESN'T mean that the county can't ask me for my permits - it just means that farm buildings are very typically excused if the land is ACTUALLY dedicated to harvest and production. Thanks everyone! Here's the link to the law form in case you're in Tennessee too. https://www.tnfarmbureau.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/TN-Law-and-Resources-Pertaining-to-the-Definition-of-Agriculture-Zoning-Farm-Property-Taxes-Multiple-Use-Subclassification.pdf

Will keep updating as I go deeper down the rabbit hole.
 
Douglas Alpenstock
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Hi Andy. I think you've garbled the quotes a little.

My only concern lies in encouraging folks to develop their land in a way that will bite them later, and cancel out aspects of their hard work.

The young and eager may not give a fig about old-fart stuff like codes and permits and resale issues. But perspectives often change 30 years down the road. So go into this with eyes wide open.
 
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