When Americana author Laura Ingalls Wilder coined the title for her book series, she had no way of knowing it would come back as a buzzword for what could be an addition to Mono County’s building code.
That addition might stem from a little known part of California Regulations called “Limited Density (LD) Owner-Built Rural Dwellings.” During the Board of Supervisors’ Tuesday meeting, a workshop by Mono Community Development’s Brent Calloway explored the potential for a possible “LD” ordinance in Mono County, which would allow for a “relaxed building standard” in certain rural areas.
With so much undeveloped land in Mono County, LDs would potentially make building small, less intricate buildings easier, cutting down on staff time for plan approvals, permitting, inspections, etc.
The LD ordinance can trace its lineage back to the counterculture movement of the 1960s, and was born, figuratively, in a cabin in Mendocino County that served as the springboard for what became statewide legislation. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bay Area refugees seeking a more “organic” way of life caused an influx of population.
As one might expect, some conflict arose between the older established population, and the new counterculture denizens putting down roots, literally, in the more rural environment. The new owner-builder community that sprang-structured up soon found itself targeted by county inspectors, even though those same inspectors weren’t red-tagging the established residents, who were themselves also in flagrant violation of code.
That led Governor Jerry Brown (during his earlier term, before limits) to enact the Class K Code, a less prescriptive building code that relies more on the touchy-feely assessment of building department officials, rather than just strict, written code. Drawings and structural analysis aren’t required unless a structure is deemed very complex. Reasonable judgment is used to determine compliance with basic safety and other standards. The code doesn’t, however, allow neglecting any responsibility to national water and power standards.
Calloway pointed out the ordinance is designed to be flexible, and fit with the density and zoning in any given specific area. But the proposed ordinance won’t come together without meeting some challenges. First, the County’s General Plan doesn’t encourage development of remote property. It would also have to conform to environmental health requirements for approved water, septic and power, as well as fire and access requirements, including Title 24 green sprinkler standards. And Calloway didn’t discount other yet unknown legalities.
Class K has since been folded into the state’s Title 25 Housing and Community Development Codes, which regulate mobile home, as well as LD construction.
Supervisor Tim Hansen, while not opposed to the idea, posited that on one hand, LD could be construed as encouraging off-the-grid type building. On the other hand, Hansen suggested the hippie, unapproved commune buildings that don’t meet any codes could be perceived as a form of “class warfare” against those who are building within existing code.
Supervisor Byng Hunt wasn’t so pessimistic. “It could be something that would fit our character … a few small hunting or ski cabins, but I’d like to limit that and specify the areas,” he said.
“I see safety factors in it … finding one of those cabins in a big storm could keep people alive until we can get some SAR teams to rescue them,” Board Chair Hap Hazard added.
Calloway outlined four scenarios: 1.) Use existing code right out of Title 25, though the code wasn’t written with Mono County in mind. 2.) Develop a “prescribed code” with maximum sizes and locations, though that could take a lot of staff resources to develop. 3.) Allow the code to develop over time, which demand more staff time as it evolves, and could lead to more conflicts than it solves. 4.) Develop a code specific to a case-by-case scenario, though how legal that process would be is debatable.
Title 25 does give the County the ability to define snow loads and other standards. Hazard pointed out, however, that certain disclaimers would need to be added for clarity, including exact specifications and the fact that in remote areas there’s no fire protection.
Geographically, the LD code provides some latitude for defining “rural” and how it’s applied countywide.
Suggestions for a so-called “little house on the prairie” approach included exploring a 500-square foot size, and perhaps a five mile between homes distance allotment, among other ideas to limit the buildings to a sort of bigger ski hut type of dwelling.
“I don’t think there are going to be that many built, but we should at least have the option for them,” Supervisors Larry Johnston added.
Supervisor Vikki Bauer was still uncomfortable with the idea. “I’m having backwash already,” she said. “I’m beginning to think there are unintended consequences of this we can’t even begin to imagine.”
Consensus was reached to have Calloway add more specifics and bring back a more refined draft of what the ordinance might look like for future review.