On Wednesday, they went with a group of neighbors to present their case for living on their land to the Costilla County Planning Commission, which canceled their regular meeting due to lack of a quorum.
They were met, instead, by a vocal and hostile group of area residents, who maintain that the estimated 800 homesteaders on the vast flatlands of Costilla County have no business there.
The nearby Head Start school was closed and so was the library. Sheriff’s deputies and Colorado State Patrol officers were called because someone expected a riot. The call was aired over law enforcement radio.
None of the county officials stepped out of the building and one woman asked the homesteaders, “What are you doing here?”
Signs carried by group members stated, “Costilla county and social services stop giving them food stamps and free services, let this lazy trash go back to where the hell they come from,” and “We are rich in land. We are rich in water. We are rich in spirit. We are rich in culture. We refuse to live with scumbags.”
Homesteader John Spounias said, “Can’t say I appreciate being called a ‘scumbag’ or being threatened with violence for owning land and wanting to build. It was said by more than one person that ‘in the good ol’ days’ they ‘ran people out with 30-06s,’ and if they could, they would do it again.”
Most of the homesteaders have complied with most county regulations, but one code provision sent them packing —”Long-term camping in a recreational vehicle is restricted. Use of a recreational vehicle or other camping shelter for longer than a total of 14 days during any consecutive three months on the same parcel shall require a long-term camping permit, which may be obtained from the planning department.”
Everhart says, “This is the exact code listed in the county codes. The county is now re- fusing to issue these permits, and then issuing citations to people for illegally camping on their own land!”
County Administrator Ben Doon said the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) ordered that change. He is open to returning to the lon- ger permits, but says it’s up to the BOCC and planning commission.
Jensen said, “they sub- divided somewhere around 40,000 lots for sale, but now that people are buying them and moving onto them, they want us to leave and are will- ing to use the sheriff’s depu-ties and unequal enforcement of laws and codes to do so.”
Everhart said, “The board of county commissioners was considering changing the building codes to remove the provision for long term camping, but they never did, the county office simply stopped issuing these perfectly legal permits. So now everyone who has been legally living on their land while building is being cited for illegally camping, not because they failed to get the proper permit, but because the county refuses to issue them a perfectly legal permit.”
Everhart, Jensen and their neighbors are left with the options of abandoning their lands and risking having their tools and building materials stolen, or ignoring the county and continuing to try to build on their own private property.
Everhart said, “(Off-grid residents) have effectively been told they can’t stay on their land… It’s odd to be told I can’t be physically present here.” Jensen is a 100 percent disabled veteran of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
She and Jensen performed due diligence prior to buying her land, with one of the most important aspects being a 90- day camping permit, which is essential.
But just as Everhart was arriving, the BOCC instructed the planning and zoning commission to no longer issue camping permits.
County land use administrator Matt Valdez said his office has discretion to deny camping permits under existing code and claims too many new residents were habitually renewing permits meant to be temporary.
The homesteaders note that, while there may be legitimate issues that need to be addressed, people have a right to use land that they own in the manner they see fit.
Everhart said, as she supervised the erection of a straw bale storage shed on her land, “I’d like a government that protects me instead of kicking my veteran husband and I off the land we bought, where we’re now building a garage and where we want to build our home.”