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Living off the grid can be illegal

Emily Fox
Michigan Radio

Energy use on the globe is expected to go up by more than 50% in the next 25 years. Michigan law is mandating a heavier reliance on renewable sources by next year. But some say that’s not enough, and they are taking matters into their own hands.

Experimenting with sustainability

Take Rolf and Mari von Walthausen for example. They were a typical Traverse City couple. They worked 40-hour-a-week jobs and lived in an average-sized home. But one day they did an experiment.

“We moved all of our belongings into one room of the house and said, let’s see how it is to live in a space that is 12 by 16 [feet],” Rolf von Walthausen said.

Then they tried another experiment.

“There was a time that one summer at our house, we actually set up the tent in the yard and we lived in this tent for four months,” Rolf von Walthausen said.

Living off the grid

Then came the big test. The von Walthausens sold their house, quit their day jobs and built a tiny cabin in the woods with no running water or electricity. They got new part-time jobs teaching yoga and tuning pianos, they were living in the woods, getting their water from a stream nearby, gathering wood to heat their wood- burning stove, and using their compostable toilet outside.

Rolf von Walthausen said living off the grid is hard work, but he and his wife love it.

“This way you get to be out in nature 365 days a year and really get into those natural rhythms that we in modern society have lost,” Rolf von Walthausen said.

And they started getting closer to their neighbors. They trade things like tools for eggs and syrup. Mari von Walthausen said they began spending time with people around them more than they ever could before.

“Most people in most neighborhoods have no idea who even lives next door because you get home after dark and you just collapse,” Mari von Walthausen said.

Living off the grid was illegal

Life was good. Until the local zoning and health officials found out. Turns out there are two major problems with the von Walthausen’s lifestyle.

Clay McNitt is with the Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department.

“A habitable dwelling should have running water to it and should have a means of sanitary disposal of the sewage. That's  what our code requires,” McNitt said.

The second problem is that their 200-square-foot house is actually too small to be considered livable in their township.

Tim Johnson is the chairperson for the Centerville Township planning commission. He said the von Walthausen’s house is four times smaller than the township minimum.

“The ordinance was first written in 1976. It was first enacted, primarily, although no one will admit this, to keep single-wide mobile homes out of the township,” Johnson said.

Johnson and the von Walthausens fought the township board to get rid of the square-foot minimum. But the board voted against it.

How to legally live off the grid, at least half the year

The von Walthausens are not giving up. They can’t legally live in their cabin, but they can stay in a tent on each of their three parcels of land for two months at a time. So that’s what they are doing. They’re living in a tent for six months, then house-sitting for friends and neighbors the rest of the year.

“It’s crazy to try to navigate basically these power struggles in government,” Mari von Walthausen said.

Government officials say this wouldn’t be as much of a struggle if the von Walthausens would have talked with the proper local authorities before they started this journey.

The von Walthausens said they knew living completely off the grid probably wasn’t legal in the first place. But despite the bureaucratic and political hurdles, they are committed to living off their land as much as they can. Under the stars, and under the law.