In Costilla County, where miles of unoccupied desert are drawing residents who arrive with little but plans to make a new life, natives accuse newcomers of violating water rights, trashing the desert and ignoring land use regulations.
The accused say locals exaggerate the impact they are having on the environment and claim the county is harassing them and arbitrarily changing regulations to drive them off their land.
“We are just modest people trying to lead modest lives,” said Manny Feliu. “We would be forced out, and the rich would move in.”
Over the past few years, the county has seen a significant increase in the number of people moving in to live off the grid on pieces of land far from the nearest utility hookups.
Land is cheap in the county, where subdivisions are platted but largely unoccupied.
The county has almost 40,000 vacant, privately owned lots, the highest number in the state, spread over 500 square miles of the San Luis Valley.
Today, “at least 800 people are living off the grid. And for a county that only had 3,600 residents before, that is significant,” said Ben Doon, Costilla’s chief administrative officer.
Like many others, Chloe Everhart and her husband, Hyrum Jensen, arrived in the county planning to get a 90-day permit to live on the land in their RV while they began construction.
They were denied the long-term camping permit, even though the existing land code allows their use, Everhart said. “They are enforcing regulations that haven’t been adopted yet. People think we don’t want to abide by the land use code, and that is not the case — we are trying to,” said Everhart, who arrived in July.
Matthew Valdez, county land use administrator, said he refused the couple a permit after the board of county commissioners told his office to stop issuing them. “I will continue to follow that directive. They can camp for 14 days, two weeks, and then they have to move out,” he said. The existing code gives him discretion to deny the permits, Valdez said. In the past, many of those who were granted permits continued to stay on the land after they expired, Valdez said. “After that they had to show some type of activity to show they were going to construct something. A lot of people would get the long-term permit and construction application and do no construction but continue to live in their RV,” he said. Often the dream of life off the grid ends with newcomers abandoning their land or leaving for months at a time. Those who come back find their property has been rifled by thieves.
Costilla County Undersheriff Andrew Espinoza said the crime rate has climbed and he can no longer send one deputy in a car to police the scattered desert population. Occupants are getting more aggressive, and it is more dangerous than it was “even two years ago,” he said during a videotaped county commissioners meeting.
A representative of the sheriff’s office told The Denver Post he couldn’t provide up-to-date crime numbers.
The sheriff’s office is asking the commissioners for an increase in its budget to buy beanbag rounds and other less-lethal riot control gear and to add officers.
Abandoned trailers and possessions litter some lots in the desert, and illegal dumps have sprung up.
Espinoza said he has lived in the area for more than 30 years, and the trash problem now is the worst he has seen. “The sad part about it is a lot of people move in and then they leave their trailer and their trash,” Valdez said.
Overstaying a camping permit can lead to court action. Denise Cox, who has spent the past two years in an RV on her land, said recently she was ordered to pay $100 a day if she continues to stay in the motor home. “It was perfectly legal to live in a motor home when I moved here,” she said.
Costilla County welcomes the newcomers, Valdez said. “But we hope when they do come in they have necessary amenities so they can live properly on the property,” he added.
The county planning commission last week retreated from proposed changes to the land use code that the newcomers said were designed to get rid of them.
The proposals would have required plans to be in place for water, septic and electricity before land owners could begin construction on their property.
Many off-grid residents plan unconventional homes with infrastructure they believe wouldn’t have been permitted.
The proposal was withdrawn after a contentious commission meeting at which many spoke out against them.
The proposals would have streamlined the existing regulations but wouldn’t have given the county any more control over the land than the present code, Doon said. “We feel like revisiting the code has been a distraction.”
Water, always an issue in the bone-dry desert, has become a flashpoint. In San Luis, where locals had long taken small amounts from a well, long-time residents say newcomers have come to town and taken hundreds of gallons at a time.
Residents say that water is illegally being sucked from irrigation ditches used to irrigate farmers’ fields, and even from the nearby river. “That water is gone,” Shirley Romero Otero, whose family has lived in the San Luis Valley for generations, said during a videotaped county commission meeting.
Most of those living on the desert are respectful of water rights and take only what they need to live, Everhart said. “Somebody posted a picture of somebody filling up 250-gallon containers out of the Rio Grande, so apparently it does happen,” Everhart said. “I don’t know anybody who does that. It is not something that the majority of us are doing.”