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Gunnison County is cracking down on housing rules at Irwin

The Wild West ain’t so wild anymore

By Toni Todd

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series addressing building issues at Irwin)

Gone are the days when you could buy a lot in Irwin and do pretty much whatever you wanted with it, with nobody caring or paying attention.

Gunnison County now enforces land use regulations, including strict waste disposal requirements in the area. Several property owners who’ve purchased small lots within or near the town-site have learned the hard way. The price of land in Irwin remains relatively inexpensive compared to anywhere else at the north end of the Gunnison Valley, but it’ll still cost you plenty to live or even camp there. It’s just not as simple as it used to be.

It seemed like the perfect setup for a family getaway, so Codie Aljets bought a quarter-acre lot adjacent to the Irwin town-site. He built himself a tiny house on wheels, with what he says is the latest in environmentally friendly waste disposal systems—a dry flush toilet. He hoped to park the trailer on the lot and camp there in the summer with his wife and kids. He figured he’d also crash there on occasion in winter, whenever the weather turned bad after a day of backcountry skiing.

The tiny home had been there since last October, used just like he’d planned. Then this summer, he got a letter from the county telling him he had to remove the tiny house from the property. They gave him a week to roll it away.

“They said [build] nothing permanent,” says Aljets. “It’s a tiny house on wheels, so I’m thinking that qualifies.” Aljets said he told county officials he was willing to work with them to make the tiny house acceptable. He requested approval for a driveway, which he figured would make it easier to drive in and out, therefore making the trailer even less permanent, but was denied.

“I was told that I was not in compliance because I didn’t have a building permit, had no electrical inspection and no plumbing inspection,” he says. “It’s a dry cabin on wheels. It has no plumbing. No electric. I’m not living in it. If I was living in it, I might understand.”

Aljets says he appreciates the reasons for setbacks and septic system concerns when building permanent structures near streams. But his tiny house, he contends, is no different from a trailer, with a state-of-the-art waste containment system, and should be treated the same way. He asks, “Since when do you have to get a building permit for a trailer?”

“With tiny homes, they are required to be manufactured to an RV standard and inspected at the factory,” says Gunnison County community development director Cathie Pagano.

You can build your own tiny home, Pagano said, but you must get a building permit to do so. That’s a requirement of both the county and the state, she adds. Electrical and plumbing or septic would be part of that. Even if the cabin has no electricity and no septic, it still requires a building permit.

“He [Mr. Aljets] was told this parcel had particular challenges before he purchased it and that anything would require a permit,” says Pagano. “He was sent a stop work order/notice by our office on June 23. We have been notified by Mr. Aljets’ attorney that the structure has been removed.”

Colorado says tiny homes, by definition:

•Are typically 400 square feet or less, and mounted on a wheeled platform for mobility.

•Are constructed at an off-site manufacturing location.

•Contain living areas for cooking and sleeping.

•Have electrical wiring and plumbing already installed.

There is no reference in the state’s description to homemade tiny homes, or to dry cabins on wheels, like Aljets’. So it’s unclear how the state would classify this one. The county, however, seems clear in their definition. To them, it’s a structure, wheels notwithstanding, and requires a permit.

Mr. Aljets is not the only Irwin property owner whose plans have run afoul of county regulations.

“I spent well over $100,000 to make my place the way it is now,” says Kristi Murrin, a year-round resident of Irwin. That’s after buying the house for more than $150,000. “It’s not cheap,” she says.

Murrin has worked closely with the county over the course of several years to build her place on an acre lot in the area. Her property originally had a composting toilet when she bought it, but no gray-water system as required by the county.

“There are several houses up there still like that,” Murrin says. She was able to navigate the county’s requirements, working closely with officials and doing everything they asked to make it happen. However, some, like Aljets, have been less fortunate.

“Irwin is no longer the poor man’s last frontier,” Murrin says. “I feel as if it would be important for the buyer to beware because the real estate agents are not advising the buyers to do their homework, and the property owners just want to sell. I got lucky that I was able to buy a structure that had some grandfathering but I still spent a lot of money getting the house up to county standards.”

Murrin says people have the notion they can put up a yurt, or a shed, or maybe even just camp on their property without government oversight. “I feel bad for the many folks who had that dream in the last four years and are now facing court dates, costly deconstruction of buildings and the overall disappointment.”

Aljets says he’s invited the county to come check out his tiny home, sure that if they saw it, they’d get it. It’s nice, he insists, built to a high standard. “It’s not just one of those things that’s thrown together. It was parked up there all winter and withstood 450 inches of snow.” But, he says, they’re uninterested. “They shot a photo of it from the road, and made all their decisions from that. I’ve thought about calling the inspector to see if he’ll come out to inspect it, but he’ll probably tell me he doesn’t inspect trailers.”

Aljets, his wife, and his lawyer poured over 300 pages of county land use regulations before considering the tiny house option. “We did what we thought were within the guidelines,” he says.

Aljets feels he’s not only been treated unfairly, but that it’s become personal. One county official, he said, “flat-out told me when I came in to talk to her that she thought I was there with ill intent and she would do everything in her power to prevent me from doing anything. The way it was handled was personalized. It concerns me—if we build a home [in the county] in the future, will all this be held against me?”

“Nobody in my office would ever say that,” says Pagano.

Aljets says he feels the county is just angling for another way to collect more money, and that their disapproval of his tiny home doesn’t make sense, other than to collect the permit fee. “I’m allowed to go up there and stay in a tent, dig a hole in the ground and poop in it, but I can’t park my tiny home there and do it in a sanitary cartridge and carry it away,” he says.

Without a building permit, the county seems unlikely to make any determination one way or the other on the dry flush system, or the tiny house itself, however well-constructed it may be.

“There’s a campground right down the street,” points Aljets. “It’s filled with trailers and tiny homes, right next to the lake. Apparently, that’s okay because they bring money here. But my containment system is not acceptable.”

County regulations do allow camping on private property, “in an RV or other camping shelter” for stretches of 14 days or less. But if you want to stay there all summer, you’ll need a long-term camping permit, and must report to the county your waste-dumping plans and schedule.

Murrin says the campsite, which is on U.S. Forest Service property, and the associated mess that’s left up there because of it, is a concern. She’s not opposed to the stricter rules for property owners living in Irwin, if it means protecting the area. It’s just that many seem unaware that the county is now paying attention to Irwin. The result: New property owners learning it’s going to cost them a bundle in both money and time to be able to use their property in any way. “You can no longer do something up here, then act dumb later,” she says.

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