Tiny Tuesday: Living Under the Radar

This Burlington Free Press article highlights several individuals in Vermont who live in tiny houses that are off the grid and, for now, off the record. Like so many other small-house builders, Chrissy Bellmyer saw the tiny house as a way to save money, reduce her environmental footprint, and simplify her life. But she might have missed on that last incentive: upon finishing her house, she discovered the lifestyle she had envisioned for herself – setting up in a friend’s backyard – wasn’t legal.

Bellmyer’s difficulty surprises me a little. Accessory dwellings are permitted virtually everywhere in Vermont, per a law on equal housing treatment. Moreover, a cursory look at Vermont municipal zoning bylaws (for example) shows no minimum square-footage requirement for either primary or accessory dwellings. Sometimes the movable nature of a house on wheels hangs up folks who desire permanent residence, as we saw on Nantucket… but much of Vermont does not require a foundation except in flood zones. (The laws are stricter in Burlington, where Bellmyer originally hoped to put her house before she settled in an undisclosed Chittenden County town.)

Of all the usual culprits that keep tiny houses from being legal, only one really factors into this story: all habitations must have “adequate potable water and wastewater systems”. That means hookups to public utilities, or a well and septic system that was designed by a professional and approved by the local building department. Bellmyer does connect to her “host” home for running water, and it’s not clear if this arrangement meets the town code. She does not appear to have a pipe system for wastewater.

Is it OK to live under the radar? On one hand, it seems reasonable to live as you please as long as you pay your taxes and don’t put anyone else in danger. On the other hand, you can save a lot of hassle by doing your research ahead of time, so that your dream home doesn’t break the law.

Thanks to Laura Schutz.

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