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It’s the Law

Posted on August 25, 2015 by
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I usually find myself getting very involved with a Communities theme as we’re assembling an issue. This is often just a natural outgrowth of soliciting, reading, and editing articles on the theme, perhaps writing one myself, and talking about the upcoming magazine with other people. Seldom, however, has a theme struck so close to home—literally—as “Community and Law” has in my personal life over the past six months.

For at least 20 of the past 30 years, most of those in intentional community, I have lived in dwellings that were not exactly…well, legal. They were built without permits and not according to code. They lacked many of the bells and whistles that building codes generally require of modern homes, and also had much smaller ecological footprints. They were do-it-yourself dwellings whose construction and occupancy were basically victimless crimes—and indeed, no one seemed to be bothered that I was living, for most of the past dozen-plus years, in an unpermitted yurt and attached cabin. Our intentional community had several non-code-compliant dwellings and since no one complained about them, our county government’s over-extended land-management division turned a blind eye.

When we submitted a new site plan application, however, the county could no longer turn a blind eye. In early spring, I received word from our community’s liaison to the county that I ought to plan to vacate my yurt within two months.

The gears at the county have ground more slowly than projected—thankfully. It’s taken me until mid-summer to complete renovation of a tiny-home-on-wheels that is allowing me, for the first time in a long time, to live in a space that is actually legal, approved by the authorities.

For the last several months I have spent at least as much time disassembling things, cleaning surfaces, planning, measuring, cutting boards, driving screws, affixing insulation, etc., as I have working on the magazine—all because the crosshairs at the intersection of Community and the Law were aimed at me and my home. (This has introduced some very early mornings and very late nights into my daily routine, since the amount of work it takes to produce the magazine has not diminished.) Ironically, the ability to live as I have for so long in unpermitted, non-code-compliant dwellings has helped me to afford to do such things as survive on a Communities magazine editor’s salary while dreaming up topics to cover like Community and the Law.

Fortunately, the opening-up of the tiny home route as a legally allowed option, while requiring some initial outlay (probably a year’s salary invested into my new home), will allow me to continue to live frugally without the kinds of household expenses that drive many people to separate their work from their passions and vision.

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I’ve experienced the theme in other ways as well recently. Three communities with which I have close ties have all encountered serious legal challenges especially over the last few months. And over the last three decades, I’ve been witness to and even a part of a range of legal issues related to different communities. Many of these challenges are mirrored by other stories in these pages. A few of them are unique or sufficiently different that they merit mentioning here, since no feature article describes them in detail.

One area perhaps under-represented in this issue is “Legal Challenges from Within.” More than one community has run afoul legally of disgruntled ex-members (or even, in one case I know of, a disgruntled aspiring member) who bring lawsuits whose outcome is a “settlement,” arrived at because the group (or its insurance company) finds it less expensive to settle (hand over some money, even if the lawsuit is not justified by facts) than to fight the lawsuit in court or through further mediation.

In cases where a community has activities that generate an income stream (perhaps as part of an educational nonprofit), ex-volunteers have sued to be paid for work that they had done voluntarily; ex-staff have sued to be paid, retroactively, higher wages than they had agreed to work for and than anyone else in the cooperative group made; ex-provisional-staff have sued for breach of contract, wrongful termination, defamation of character, and infliction of emotional distress—because, after their trial period, the group declined to hire them into a position for which they were judged to be a poor fit. The merits of some of these cases never got a chance to be tested, simply because the high cost of lawyers made a settlement the least expensive option.

In a litigious society, cooperative groups are not immune to these kinds of unexpected legal actions taken against them; in fact, they may be particularly vulnerable. Their members may tend to be (and also proudly aspire to be) more trusting than suspicious, more open than self-protective, more likely to expect honesty, integrity, and efforts at harmony than deceit, betrayal of trust, and antagonistic actions. Cooperative groups may also be stretched thin in both staffing and funding, and their businesses may have less-than-optimal investment or professionalism in their Human Resources departments, which might otherwise intercept such problems before they blew up into legal complaints.

An added twist occurs when the community has buildings that violate code, uses unpermitted humanure or graywater systems, or engages in some other activities that are not considered fully legal. I have seen a disgruntled resident, on the way out of a community, successfully pressure a group into allowing a longer stay than the group was comfortable with, by threatening to turn them in for various infractions. I have witnessed mysterious (but never indisputably correlated) code enforcement activities against a group immediately following the departure of a member who’d had a major falling-out with them. While circumstances are often murky surrounding cause, effect, and intention in these situations, it is clear that the law can be—and sometimes is—used as a weapon (or, depending on your perspective, a tool) when conflicts that occur within a group erupt beyond the point of internal resolution.

I have also seen the law be brought in to resolve internal disputes in a more effective way than the group itself could manage. In one case, an embattled Board of Directors who’d defied the wishes of a powerful member (and suffered the consequences: a lawsuit against them brought by that member and a rogue Board of Directors) took legal action that established their own legitimacy and allowed a paralyzed organization to move forward. Using the legal system may—for good reason—be the strategy of last resort within groups who are attempting to develop and model more cooperative ways to resolve conflicts (and to find win-win solutions when differences arise)…but it can be an appropriate strategy when every other approach fails.

It can also be an appropriate strategy when facing “Challenges from Without”—though it is not guaranteed to be effective. One group had its access road blocked off by a new neighbor who’d bought a property through which that community had a driveway easement. (That same neighbor had turned in various unpermitted buildings at the community as well—buildings the county officials had been inclined to let stand until the neighbor compelled them to enforce regulations.) The group’s lawsuit established that the easement was legal and that the neighbor had no right to block the driveway. The neighbor responded by blocking it even more thoroughly, with very large boulders. Finally the community reached an agreement with the neighbor which involved improvement of an alternative route—but the neighbor prevailed in his wishes to shut down the established access road, despite losing in court.

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Neighbor problems are just one variety of legal challenges coming from outside the community, but they may be the most potent one. Several articles in this issue describe variations on that common story. Challenges from neighbors become even thornier when they are being funded, albeit covertly, by a multinational corporation. This was another story we weren’t able to present in full in this issue, though we hoped to. But imagine this scenario:

Two forest-protection activists organize the public against spraying within the forests, thereby making enemies of an economically powerful herbicide manufacturer (which, on the side, also genetically engineers and patents seeds and plant varieties). The corporation funds the establishment of a “grassroots” organization within the state to advocate, nominally, for “food and shelter” (but actually, against any restrictions on the use of insecticides, herbicides, or GMOs). That group then gets active in various rural locales, including in the neighborhood of the forest activist couple, whose efforts they actively oppose.

The couple acquires additional forest land in order to protect it, including a parcel that contains abandoned conference center facilities. The couple then gifts use of that land to an educationally-focused intentional community group in search of a home. This new community revives the conference center site to empower people to learn about and practice ways of living that are more organic and earth-friendly (meaning, among other things, free of synthetic chemicals and GMOs). The corporation’s “grassroots” front group (many of whose members have no idea that they are being funded by that corporation) then kicks into high gear locally, bringing repeated complaints and legal challenges against the educational nonprofit community.

These intentional community members had no idea what they were stepping into when they accepted the gift of the land—or that a network was already set in place to exact retribution against the activist couple and also against anyone connected to them or their land.

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It would be easy to become cynical in the face of a scenario like that one (even if, for argument’s and legalities’ sakes, it was only an “imagined” one)—or in the face of the many stories of dashed hopes and thwarted efforts at community, all at the hands of the “law.”

But the law can be changed, and people can change as well. It may be true that “the law doesn’t hurt people…people hurt people”—the law is just a tool. As some of these stories also show, the law can be an instrument to promote more community, more sustainable ways of living, more of the kind of society many of us aspire to and work toward. A number of groups and organizations exist to help people work with the legal system to not only allow but promote this kind of cooperative future, for individuals and small groups and also for society at large.

One organization which stands out in this regard is the Sustainable Economies Law Center, whose website (www.theselc.org) offers many helpful resources in the area of “community and the law.” Among their services are the Resilient Communities Legal Cafe, which provides “direct legal support to individuals and groups who are working to create new solutions for resilient local economies.” Volunteers specialize in serving cooperatives, nonprofits, cottage food businesses, social enterprises, urban farms, complementary currencies, time banks, and small businesses to help them make their communities a better place to live and thrive—while doing so legally.

Another standout organization is City Repair (www.cityrepair.org), based in Portland, Oregon, as well as its outgrowth, Planet Repair (planetrepair.org). Numerous other groups around the country are also working to empower people to create new codes and laws that encourage rather than discourage both community and sustainability, from Recode (www.recodenow.org) to the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (celdf.org).

Both within our groups and in the larger society, we do have the power to make agreements and establish legal norms that enhance rather than detract from our ability to live as responsible planetary citizens in healthy human communities. Obstacles to this that abound today also offer lessons we will need to create a more resilient future.

Please enjoy this issue!

Chris Roth edits Communities.


3 Replies to “It’s the Law”

willowsfair

I was glad to see this article. From what I have observed as a career land-use planner, intentional communities are simply the key to our future. With their mandate to use sparingly, to share willingly, to live lightly upon the land and to value human effort toward healthy outcomes over corporate greed, we cannot move forward without more folk choosing to live like this. I am committed to doing all I can, professionally and personally, to see that the communities in my area thrive and are protected from legal challenges that threaten their viability. If I can answer questions about issues of zoning, eminent domain, utilities, public services, comprehensive planning, site planning, or related matters, please let me know. I am a relative newcomer to this way of life, but I am here for the duration.

Cynthia

Thank you, Chris, for this very well organized article. These issues have been gnawing at me as I work to create the Beautiful Minds Ranch community. I truly appreciate the sacrifices you have made to live your life on purpose.

Sharing your knowledge and experience here is an admirable and valuable contribution to all who share your passion and desire to live responsibly.

Best wishes my friend.

Nancy Sullivan

Thanks for your excellent information regarding the trouble you can get in by disrespecting the law. I had no idea that “co-housing” equals “the law doesn’t apply to us”-we’re busy building our intentional community.

One thing co-housers may want to consider, depending upon which state the community is in and the type of legal title the homes are sold under (condominium is often the type) is the fact of insurance requirements. Insurance companies often don’t like condo associations for various rea-sons, a primary one being they are often managed by amateurs. In our state, you can’t have a condo community without insurance. Insurance companies don’t insure buildings not built to code, saw mills in garages, etc.

Does living responsibly also mean building a safe community? A community respectful of the larger community? Does legal, ethical and moral belong in the language of community? I’m not sure….

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