Looking for an escape from the frenzy of digital life?
In terms of the natural beauty and diversity it packs, Colorado is an excellent destination for off-grid living.
In reality, off grid living in Colorado is not an easy task. Still, if you are ready to handle some of the challenges, the breathtaking views make the “Centennial State” a rewarding choice for living off the grid.
Here, we will discuss the essential aspects of living off the land in Colorado.
Is Living off-grid in Colorado Legal?
Living off-grid in Colorado is legal, as long as you follow the related laws. These include zoning laws, water laws, and laws related to sewage and waste disposal. That means, even if you own the land, you will not be able to do whatever you want on it without prior permission.
Also, there are some counties where the government has set up laws that prevent landowners from camping on their own lands. In recent times, Costilla County was in the news with the authorities trying to force off-gridders back into the grid.
Zoning Laws for Off Grid Living in Colorado
Zoning laws put restrictions on land use and development to ensure public welfare, health, and safety. It goes without saying that understanding the zoning laws set by the local government is imperative before you buy any off-grid property in Colorado. That means you need to pick a piece of land where building an off-grid cabin or tiny house is allowed.
In addition, there are two model land use codes for municipalities and counties. These codes mention permitted land use and minimum lot sizes for setting up off-grid homes.
There are also restrictions on the construction of accessory buildings and their use on your land. If you want to set up an off-grid zone for multiple families, some counties require the land to be zoned under the “Residential Multi-Dwelling” category.
Among the various forms of zoning practices in Colorado, traditional or Euclidean zoning is the most common. Under this practice, only one kind of land use is allowed per zone. There can be sub-categories under each zone with more specifications.
The advantage of the Euclidean practice is it prevents incompatible land use and helps in preserving the quality of life of the people. For example, in most portions of Denver County Euclidean zoning is practiced.
Many counties in Colorado follow a mixture of zoning laws that allow commercial as well as residential use. Mentioned below are some of the other types of zoning practices in Colorado.
Form-based zoning- This is a more restrictive form of zoning that follows a master plan. The function, configuration, and design of the buildings in the zone are specifically defined.
Hybrid zoning- This is a mixture of Euclidean zoning and form-based zoning practices. This practice encourages the growth of diverse neighborhoods while ensuring great livability.
Planned Unit Developments- This form of zoning allows the development of self-sufficient communities within a specific area.
Note, as per the “Senate Bill 35”, subdividing land into areas smaller than 35 acres is strictly limited. So, for living off the land in Colorado, you will need to buy at least 35 acres of land.
In general, most Colorado land parcels are sold in increments of 35 or 40 acres. This reduces the availability of cheap land and makes off-grid living in Colorado more expensive.
Overall, if you are not familiar with zoning codes, this can be a tricky area to navigate. For a better idea about living off the grid in Colorado, you can contact the planning department of a particular county.
Colorado Building Codes
All off-grid buildings and tiny homes need to follow the building codes and regulations of the state of Colorado. These laws can vary for each county or city and may overlap with the zoning laws for that area.
If you want to design a non-standard off-grid homestead, meeting the requirements of the codes can get challenging. But without meeting the necessary legal requirements, you will end up paying hefty fines for your off-grid property.
Building Permits in Colorado
Apart from following the Building Codes, most Colorado landowners will need to obtain a Building Permit to set up an off-grid home. Some counties have a specific rule that mentions the minimum size of a building that may be built without a permit.
However, there are some counties where obtaining a permit is not required. For example, Delta County and Montezuma County do not require building codes or permits as long as you follow the land use standards.
How to Get Power for Off-Grid Living in Colorado
Some local building codes make electrical lighting compulsory in some Colorado counties. If not, going solar is the best option for off-grid living in Colorado. The good news is that with the rise in demand for clean energy, wind and solar power developers are working on a high pitch in the state.
With an average of 300 sunny days in a year, it is one of the best states for harnessing solar energy. Areas like the San Luis Valley and Alamosa County are some of the best available solar resources in the country.
The average cost of solar panel installation in the state is between $2.95 to $3.99 per watt. That makes it ideal for running essential appliances like refrigerators or security cameras while prepping.
By installing solar panels, you can get a federal solar tax credit. In addition, some counties and municipal governments also offer rebates on property taxes for the installation of solar energy equipment or fixture in residential properties. However, there are no statewide property tax incentives or solar tax credits for renewable energy installations.
The other option is installing a residential-sized wind turbine to make use of the abundantly available wind energy. In fact, the Eastern Plains on the east of the Rocky Mountains are one of the best wind power resources in the country.
How to Get Water For Off-Grid Living in Colorado?
Even though there are multiple river basins fed by glaciers of the Colorado mountains within its boundary, the state has an arid climate. On top of that, the rising threat of global warming has made water scarcity a big challenge for the state.
All surface and groundwater in Colorado is a public resource. The state follows a “Prior Appropriation System” to govern water usage, also known as the “first in time, first in right.”.
Under this law, the first person to appropriate and use water from a stream or underground source has the first right to that water system. That person has the primary claim to that water system as a senior right holder. The Division of Water Resources has the responsibility of allocating water to the users based on their rights.
If you are planning to grow crops and raise livestock on your property, make sure to research the surface or groundwater resources available on the property. Keep in mind, digging a well in your land will require a well permit from the State Engineer. Make sure to check if an existing well is registered with the Division of Water Resources.
In case the well falls within the Denver basin, additional rules can apply. Other points you need to know are the pumping rate of the well and the water quality. However, it is difficult to obtain a well permit for land pieces smaller than 35 acres.
Since water rights within the state can be a complicated issue, you can get help from a professional who specializes in water law, before you buy a property.
Fresh Lakes and Springs
Freshwater from all lakes and springs in the state is governed by the same rules stated above. You can buy the water rights of any land for as long as the water is used for beneficial purposes. A water-right owner can divert, extract, or move water from a lake or spring to the place of use
Note, in some cases, a spring can be classified as a well. In that case, all laws associated with a standard well will be applicable. Generally, water laws for any real estate with a spring are individually evaluated by the department.
Colorado allows rainwater harvesting from the roof of residential properties. The collection process is guided by House Bill 16-1005. It was one of the last few states to legalize the use of residential rain barrels.
For collecting rainwater in two rain barrels with a total storage capacity of 110 gallons, you do not need a permit. However, this water is to be used for non potable outdoor purposes, and not as drinking water or for indoor purposes like showering.
The use of stream water is guided by the appropriation law. The rights of the senior water right holder will have to be satisfied before any other rights on the particular stream system are filled. Water rights owners can build facilities to divert the water for their use.
Check the water rights for the stream connected to the property. You can apply for a right by filing an application with the water court that serves that area.
Waste Removal for off-grid Living in Colorado
The waste water removal system of any off-grid property in Colorado is guided by the On-site Wastewater Treatment Systems Act. Primarily, any system that disposes effluent to a surface water system will require approval from the local board of health. In the next stage, an inspection of the same will be made by the local public health agency.
The state also has specific rules for gallons of sewage discharge and biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) depending on the type of use. There are also guidelines that mention the minimum horizontal distance required between the sewage system and various natural features.
In case the system has a “design capacity greater than or equal to 2,000 gallons per day” a site visit and separate permission from the Department of Public Health.
Note, recycling of greywater is allowed in line with the local greywater control program. Unauthorized use or discharge of greywater is not allowed.
Septic tanks are allowed in Colorado, provided they are designed by licensed professionals. The septic tank sizing depends on the number of bedrooms in a residential property. The minimum period of sewage detention that a septic system should be designed for is 30 hours.
Some counties in Colorado do not allow outhouses on a property due to zoning restrictions. If the property has an existing outhouse the sewage system should be in line with the general guidelines. But setting up a separate septic system for an outhouse may not be a practical choice.
Any sewer system that transports sewage should be designed by a certified engineer in line with the local guidelines. For the expansion of any existing sewage disposal system, you will need a separate permit.
The use of composting toilets is allowed in Colorado and they can be located inside a dwelling or building. However, such toilets need to meet all local rules and it should not be a health hazard for the residents. Once the toilet is filled to 75% of its capacity, the waste should be disposed of by using appropriate solid waste practices
Helpful Tips to Become Self-Sustainable While Living off-grid in Colorado
Here are a few tips that will help you while living off the land in Colorado.
- Some of the best counties for off-grid living in Colorado are Las Animas County, El Paso County, Jackson County, Jefferson County, and Eagle County.
- Winters in Colorado are chilly. If you want to cut power costs, think of using a propane stove or a wood stove for heating. A lot of people think that wood-burning stoves are not legal in Colorado, which is untrue. However, there are restrictions on the use of woodburning stoves on air quality Action Days.
- It is best to pick areas that have sufficient rainfall. It is best to set up a rainwater collection system that will pay big returns for years to come.
- If you are using solar power, design your garden wisely. The evergreen trees should not block out the sun. During winter, make sure to keep the panels clear from snow.
The best part of off grid living in Colorado is the incredible beauty of nature that you can enjoy. If you want to walk away from digital life and stay close to nature, Colorado is a great option.
That said, if you are seeking a more affordable place for setting up an off-grid home, Colorado may not be the right choice. The state has a relatively high cost of living and high property prices. In addition, the water scarcity and regulations regarding water also make it a more challenging option compared to some of the states.