Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
The Small Home, Big Decisions series follows Jennifer and her husband, Tyler, as they build a self-reliant homestead on a piece of country property in northeastern Kansas. The series will delve into questions that arise during their building process and the decisions they make along the way. The posts are a work in progress, written as their home-building adventure unfolds.
The short answer to this week’s big question is persistence. After our property was classified as a subdivision and after the first meeting with the Leavenworth County Planning Commission, who did not approve our stormwater drainage report waiver, my inner lawyer burst out. (Well, after a brief period of woe-is-me self pity.) We read through several of the county’s legal documents. We read a lot of legal jargon. A lot.
Then, we called the county’s Planning and Zoning Department. We asked questions based on our reading, and asked for clarity on two main points: First, we feel confident that the plat survey we had already paid to have done should not have been our responsibility — it should have been handled in order for the previous owner to be able to sell the property in the first place. Second, we feel confident that we qualify to be an exception to the term “subdivision” by the county’s definitions in its Zoning and Subdivision Regulations. The staff at the planning department, to be fair, were likely not responsible for the previous errors. However, they were now our point of contact to fix the error. So, we pushed, we asked questions, we persisted.
I drove to the Leavenworth County courthouse (for our third appearance in the building) to present our final plat and waiver for approval to the Board of County Commissioners. The recommendations for approval, first by the Planning and Zoning Department that included the waiver and second by the County Planning Commission that did not approve the waiver, would be taken into consideration for a final decision on our plat’s approval by the Board. The staff of the planning department was present and they explained our situation and strongly recommended that our plat and waiver be approved. I had come prepared to make a strong argument on our behalf, and had even brought several of the county’s legal documents that we’d read and marked up with me to reference. Luckily, none of that was necessary, because the staff said it all.
When it was my turn to step up to the microphone, I gave my short-and-sweet appeal (starting with the required stating of my name and address for the official record):
“My name is Jennifer Kongs, and I live in Lawrence, Kan., but my husband and I hope to soon make Leavenworth County our home. We have followed all the required procedures in order to bring our land into compliance with the county’s zoning regulations with the intention of requesting a building permit for our future home. I understand that due to the process by which this piece of property was split from its parent property, our land is defined as a ‘subdivision.’ However, we are a family looking to build a single-family residence; we have no interest in or intention of building an apartment complex, splitting the land into smaller lots, or any other activity that would be considered a true ‘subdivision.’ We will not be putting in parking lots, or paving streets and alleyways. The only concrete will be in our basement. The only ‘road’ will be our driveway. With the knowledge of the specifics of our situation, we kindly request that our final plat and the associated waiver be approved. Thank you.”
That was it. Months of work came down to a five-minute decision. They approved the final plat and the waiver unanimously. On the way out of the meeting, a few other landowners were sitting in the back row, and offered me congratulations. One man, sporting a half-smile and coveralls, shook my hand, saying, “Congratulations, neighbor. I think.” It seems we aren’t the only folks who have had to work through some bureaucratic technicalities.
For anyone who is facing a similar difficulty, my biggest recommendation is to not be timid about working with the department responsible for planning and zoning in your area, to get informed of what the law stipulates, and to ask advice from anyone you know with real estate law.
What’s next? We have to collect signatures on the final plat from the surveyor and several representatives of various government organizations in Leavenworth County. Then, Tyler and I will need to sign the plat and have our signatures notarized. While we’re doing so, we can start to work with our contractor to turn in all the pieces needed to apply for a building permit — but that’s a separate post yet to come! For now, we are going to spend more time having fun on our property (see evidence in photo, above).
Next in the series: Which Renewable Energy Sources Will We Include in Our New Home?
Previously in the series: Who Will Draw Our House Plans?
Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can connect directly with Jennifer and Tyler by leaving a comment below!