HUDSON, Wisc. — The U.S. Supreme Court will decide if a family can sell a piece of property that’s been in the family for 57 years.
The decision in a case called Murr v. Wisconsin could impact the rights of property owners all over the country.
William and Margaret Murr purchased a 1 ¼ acre lot in 1960 and built a cabin, and then three years later bought a similar-sized property adjacent to them, the Leader Telegram reported. Three decades later, the couple gave the land to their children. The family subsequently asked the county about selling the vacant lot, but the county blocked the sale because of a rule requiring lots to have one acre of buildable land. Even though the vacant lot is about 1 ¼ acres, its buildable space is much smaller – less than one acre — after deducting the slope and wetlands area, the newspaper reported.
The family had hoped to use the funds from the sale to pay for renovations to the cabin.
“All along we were receiving a property tax statement for that land, land that the county assessed as buildable property,” their daughter, Donna Murr, told the newspaper. “It was assessed at $400,000 and we paid $4,000 to $6,000 a year on it and didn’t think twice about it, because that’s what we were told it was worth.”
The problem: When her parents bought the land, the vacant lot was considered acceptable for building, but county ordinances later changed.
“An assessor told us then that the extra land was basically worth about $40,000, meaning we lost $360,000 in value because of the ordinance change,” Murr said. “If you do the math, since we owned the property, we paid $78,000 more in taxes than we should have. It just seems so unfair. If we hadn’t gone in, they’d still be assessing us. They told us it was our job to know about the ordinance.”
A group called the Pacific Legal Foundation sued the county and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources on the Murr’s behalf, claiming the government had violated the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by taking the Murrs’ property without offering reasonable compensation. Lower courts rejected that argument, prompting an appeal to the Supremes.
“We aren’t going to be allowed to sell the second parcel, unless we tore down the cabin next door,” Murr said on a conference call with reporters. “We were stunned. We couldn’t believe that the government would happily take our property tax dollars for 50 years, and then deny us the basic property rights here.”
If the Supreme Court rules in the favor of the Murrs, it could clear the way for hundreds of similar suits across the country.
“This case has broad implications, because the Murrs are far from alone in confronting this issue,” John Groen, an attorney for the Foundation, told Reason. “The problem of bureaucrats and courts defining the parcel as a whole to include adjoining lots in common ownership presents itself throughout the country.”
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Homeowners and landowners won a major victory over the EPA and the Obama administration Tuesday when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that property owners have the right to challenge, in federal court, efforts to use the Clean Water Act to restrict land use.
The court ruled that property owners can go directly to court if the US Army Corps of Engineers says the land falls under Clean Water Act restrictions.
The Obama administration had argued that property owners must wait to sue until they are denied a permit – a lengthy bureaucratic process which could take years.
“If that were correct, the Act’s ominous reach would again be unchecked by the limited relief the Court allows today,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote of the federal government’s argument.
The justices, in an 8-0 decision, ruled that Hawkes Company, which mines peat in Minnesota, has the right to file a suit challenging a Corps of Engineers decision not to grant a permit to dig peat on the property. The Corp ruled that the area was part of the “water of the US.”
“They may proceed without a permit and argue in a Government enforcement action that a permit was not required, or they may complete the permit process and then seek judicial review, which, the Corps suggests, is what Congress envisioned,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote of Hawkes.
The Corps argued that it had the right to stop Hawkes from digging peat because it was mining in wetlands on a tributary of a river.
If Hawkes Company proceeds without a permit or court ruling on its side, it would be subject to fines as high as $37,500 a day.
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When we think of weeds, we seldom include trees on the list of culprits. But some trees are so invasive and pervasive that they really ought to be on the list. Case in point: the red cedar.
My kids and I live on a 40-acre homestead in rural Missouri. Unfortunately, only about eight acres of it is in usable pasture, and the rest is a mix of small stands of hardwoods, briar patches and a whole lot of cedars. A whole lot!
In order to get more use out of the property, we have long wanted to get rid of the vast stand of cedars. The hardwoods we want — for future firewood and wildlife habitat — but the cedars really serve little purpose in either of these departments.
Sadly, the cedar on our property is not enough to interest a logging company. So we investigated the prospect of having it cleared by a hired crew. Estimates ran into thousands of dollars per acre! That idea quickly fell into obscurity. So, the Northern California boy that I am, I began to formulate my own plan for cedar eradication.
A bit of research revealed that there were a number of specialty mills in the area that would buy cedar logs for a variety of purposes. This woke up my inner Paul Bunyan, so I determined to pick up a saw and head into the woods to see what damage I could do.
The first thing I am going to make perfectly clear is that the phrase “easy work, excellent pay” does not apply here! “Get rich quick working from home” is also not the best description. Logging is a lot of work, especially if you wind up doing it on your own! But if you aren’t afraid to work up a sweat, brave some midgrade dangers, and live with a few sore muscles — and if you have marketable trees that you can’t afford to have removed, you may want to think about a family tractor logging operation.
Now it’s good news time! The equipment you will need to get going is probably already on your homestead, if you’re even halfway serious about your endeavor. You are going to need a good chainsaw with at least an 18-inch bar, a tractor, a good towing chain with a hook on each end, and a trailer to get your logs to the mill.
Before you get going, you will have to research what mills in your area are buying logs from the kind of trees you intend to cut. Not only will you need to find out if the mills are buying, but what size they want the logs to be. For example, the mill I sell to most often wants red cedar logs between 6 and 18 inches diameter (at the small end), and cut to 44 inch lengths. Mills vary in their requirements; another mill I sell to at times has a minimum 7 inch diameter and wants the logs in 8 foot lengths. Make absolutely certain you know where your logs are going, and what the parameters are or you can find yourself with a trailer full of unsellable wood!
Once you have established your market, it’s time for the fun part — cutting down trees! It’s not always as easy as it sounds, and this is the stage where an element of danger comes in. Make sure you learn your felling skills, the relation of your notch and your back cut to the direction of fall, in more open areas. If trees in thick growth fall the wrong way, they can end up hung up, and getting a hung tree down can be pretty dicey, especially on a windy day.
Once you have your trees down, you need to limb them. This is another area where caution is in order. There is a tendency to want to rush through this stage, but that can also get you hurt. A good pair of steel-toed boots is in order.
To reduce the number of trips, I leave trees full length to skid to the landing where the trailer is. This is where the tricks of the trade come in. I learned to skid logs a long time ago back in Northern California. Then, we had choker cables designed for the task. What I have found makes a great substitute is a three-fourths-inch chain with a hook at each end. The chain is wrapped around the log a foot or two back from the end you will be towing from. Get the chain as tight as you can and still be able to easily secure the chain back to itself with the hook. The other end of the hook goes to your tractor’s towing point. When you start your skid, the tension on the chain causes it to go tight on your log (“choking” it) for a trouble-free skid to your landing.
Back at the landing, logs are cut to length, scaled for diameter, and loaded on the trailer. I use pallet forks on my tractor’s bucket to ease the loading process. I use the 16-foot trailer for the Kubota tractor for log hauling. Once the load is securely tied down, it’s off to the mill.
This has been an excellent solution to my cedar problem, and a great supplement to my cash flow. A little hard work has turned this weeded land into a $300-a-load asset, and it is getting cleared at the same time.
Have you ever cleared land and sold wood? Share your advice in the section below:
My rudimentary grasp of mathematics tells me I have done the homesteading world a big favor. According to the law of averages, high numbers are offset by equally low numbers.
When it comes to mistakes made in buying rural property, I have made enough to allow for a lot of other people to keep theirs to a minimum.
I do understand that the law of averages isn’t quite that cut and dried. And I am pleased to say that my husband and I did do some things right when we bought our place in 2007.
But we have learned many lessons since then, and I would like to share a few points from my own successes and failures which might be helpful to others who are in the process of buying a homestead.
As with any real estate, there are three important factors to consider first: location, location, location. The following questions should be asked:
- Is the property in a flood zone or prone to other natural disasters?
- Is it in close proximity to eyesores, former chemical spills, or landfills?
- What kind of road is it on? If on a back road, who will maintain it and keep it passable in all seasons? If on the main road, what is the traffic like?
When we bought our property, we did not know that due to a quirky tangle of federal and state highway regulations, all 18-wheelers were required to leave the interstate some 40 miles south and travel two-lane roads from there to their destination. Trucks roaring past our house day and night were often so loud they would keep us awake at night and even limit conversation with the windows open.
The locals had been fighting the issue for so many years that it seemed futile to hope for change. Astonishingly, change did come. Our senator fought hard for us in Washington and won. Our road still gets plenty of commuters, but it’s nothing like it was before. We lucked out, but bear in mind that not everyone is so fortunate.
The upside of living on a main road is that we rarely lose power, we are always the first to be plowed during a snowstorm, and we have a great location for a farm stand.
Speaking of farm stand, make sure there are no restrictions on that sort of thing if it’s part of your plan. Zoning and covenants vary widely across the nation and even from one small community to the next. Consider whether local rules will allow things such as:
- Anywhere on the property or just out back? Raised beds or in-ground?
- Any limits on numbers or species?
- Fencing of your choosing, or only a certain type?
- New barns or outbuildings? Add-ons? A sugar house?
- Clotheslines? Fire pits?
- Farm implements? Spare equipment for parts?
- Any decorations you like, or will the local code enforcement balk at your black-and-white Holstein design on the barn and the sculpture made of old tires on the front lawn?
Will you resent restrictions placed on your new deck designs and rustic perimeter fencing, or will you be grateful that such rules are in place to ensure that everyone in the neighborhood keeps things tidy? Bear in mind considerations such as:
- Are there property line setback rules that will make it challenging to fit in all your homesteading needs?
- Will you need building permits that are expensive or hard to get?
- Is there a limit on the number of buildings or their proximity to one another?
- Are buildings required by law to have power and plumbing? Ordinances are not always conducive to off-grid living, and some places prohibit it. If you plan to build off-grid on your new place, find out ahead of time if you’ll have to fight for it.
I was surprised to learn that although my town would allow me to house pigs in a crude plywood shack in my front yard if I wanted to, an outhouse in the woods of my back 60 acres would cost me hundreds of dollars in permits and inspections, and all off-grid human habitation is off-limits. Municipalities are often very strict about some things and lax about others.
Make sure you have plenty of space for all that you and your animals will need. I have seen online how-tos showing complete self-contained homesteads on a single acre; the drawing showed a house, barn, gardens, goats, chickens, a cow-calf operation, pigs, and a hay field.
I won’t tell you it can’t be done, but I know for sure that I couldn’t do it. My three-ish-acre pasture was not enough to sustain my pair of yearling steers during a dry summer and I had to buy hay to supplement their diet. My goats and pigs fared better elsewhere, browsing areas of edge and light forest, but still utilized another acre or so. Obviously, climate and weather, along with pasture quality, are all factors. But feeding a milk cow and dairy goats year-round on less than an acre seems like a stretch to me, at least in my region.
A lot can be done on a small tract of land, to be sure. If you have a long enough growing season and your soil is rich enough, or if you are willing to purchase hay and browse from elsewhere, an acre might be just perfect. Smaller or fewer animals, or livestock kept just for a season instead of year-round, might make a difference, as well.
Soil quality is a big deal. Is your intended property currently a farm, or has been in the past? Was it organic or is the soil treated with conventional applications?
My place had been habited by suburbanites who raised flowers and lawn for a couple of generations. We were able to find out where the old barns used to be and decided to dig our in-ground garden on that spot. As we had hoped, it was nutrient-rich soil. But we hadn’t considered rocks. In the process of clearing a 30 x 30 garden, we hand-dug enough rocks to build a hundred-foot-long stone wall.
Since then, we’ve increased the garden size each year, and added raised beds as well. If you can find a place with established gardens, it’s a nice perk.
Consider what the priorities of past owners were. The people who sold us our place sold off the timber within the last decade. We were aware of that fact when we bought it, but it was still disappointing to find tons of brush and damaged standing trees and soil erosion left behind.
There was also a lot of trash. The picturesque landscaping ended at the edge of the manicured lawn. Under the dense shrubbery and forest canopy lay rusting vehicles, old tarps and rotting lumber and used roofing materials, dilapidated furniture, and hundreds of plastic bags full of used kitty litter. It took us a long time to clean it up and create animal pens out of that area.
On all but the smallest plots of land, there is no way a buyer can tour every acre before buying. When we bought ours there were no established paths and little access. But the more you can explore a potential purchase, the better.
There are always silver linings. The brush from past logging has encouraged wildlife habitat and left behind tote roads that we have opened up for use as hiking and snowshoeing trails. Our work of clearing out the trash has provided a strong sense of transformation and connectedness to the land.
Another good thing about the former owners not being farmers is that we didn’t have to worry about livestock parasites or communicable diseases. If you are buying a working farm, do your best to evaluate the level of risk from previous or existing livestock.
Don’t overlook infrastructure. When we were perusing the market, it was obvious that properties with barns and outbuildings and fences and bridges and farm ponds — not to mention fruit trees and berry groves and gardens — were significantly more expensive. We scoffed at paying for such stuff — why do that, when we could do it ourselves?
The truth is, you can build it all yourselves. Depending on your situation, that might very well be the best option for you. But if we could rewind the clock, we’d look for less house, probably less land, and a whole lot more infrastructure. We have spent thousands of hours and dollars building our own, which was time and money we could have devoted to tending gardens and goats.
Ask yourself how your time is best spent. If you are purists who are buying property debt-free and depending solely on the land for your sustenance, you might be better off doing it yourself. If you are going the route of existing house and mortgage and off-farm job, consider buying more in-place framework. Youth and farming experience and community support are all factors to consider as well.
Don’t forget that the place is going to come with neighbors. Whether you are buying an acre tucked in among similar-sized lots just outside a metropolitan area or a 500-acre spread where you can’t even see the smoke from the next-door neighbor’s chimney, you will probably bump up against those around you at some point. Everyone thinks their own style of rural living is best, but not everyone is blessed with neighbors who agree.
For example, think about lifestyle differences such as:
- Are you planning on loud outdoor parties and jeep jamborees next door to a quiet family of homeschoolers who embrace a simple lifestyle?
- Conversely, are you people-powered back-to-the-landers who will resent the sound of snowmobiles at roaring past at 1 in the morning?
- Will your pristine lawn and garden clash with the neighbor’s haphazard fence and the goats behind it? Or are you the unruly goat people in your neighborhood?
- Will you be seeking isolation and privacy amid inquisitive surroundings, or will you be the one peering over the fence watching the neighbors build an underground bunker?
- Are you a big fan of guns or fireworks, or do you avoid such things?
You don’t have to like them and they don’t have to like you, but it’s a nice thing when it happens. Avoid setting yourself up for a lifetime of headaches if you can.
Nobody gets it perfect every time. Although I made some mistakes when I bought my homestead, I have few regrets. Hopefully, some of these considerations will help you make your decision in a way that when you look back on your purchase, you too will know you made the right move.
What advice would you add? Share it in the section below:
A drone could hover a few above your lawn and you would have no legal right to do anything.
That’s because there is no clear doctrine on how far into the sky property rights extend. Instead, there are two conflicting and vague standards. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) contends that Uncle Sam controls all the airspace in the United States – even the space directly above your lawn — while common law infers that property owners have some rights to the air over their land.
“There is gray area in terms of how far your property rights extend,” Jeramie Scott, an attorney at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington think tank, told The Washington Post. “It’s going to need to be addressed sooner rather than later as drones are integrated into the national airspace.”
The issue is a significant one: About 700,000 drones were sold in America just last year.
William Merideth discovered the legal dilemma over drones the hard way when one flew over his home in Bullitt County, Kentucky, on July 26, 2015. Merideth called the sheriff but found there was nothing law enforcement could do, and so he blasted the drone with buckshot from his Beneli M1 Super 90 shotgun and knocked it out of the sky.
“I have a right as an American citizen to defend my property,” Merideth told NBC News. “I think — no, I know — that I was completely justified in protecting my family.”
Bullitt County Judge Rebecca Ward agreed with Merideth and dismissed felony charges against him.
“I think it’s credible testimony that his drone was hovering from anywhere, for two or three times over these people’s property, that it was an invasion of their privacy and that they had the right to shoot this drone,” Ward told TV station WAVE.
The drone’s owner John Boggs; who is also Merideth’s neighbor, disagreed. He filed a lawsuit against Merideth that could have important legal implications for all Americans in federal court. Boggs is arguing that Merideth had no right to shoot down the drone because the air over the home was not his property.
The problem is that courts have never ruled on the question: How far do property rights extend above your land? For example, you have the right to cut limbs off your neighbor’s trees if they grow over your property line, The Post noted.
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Another problem is that the courts have never ruled on how low aircraft can fly. The US Supreme Court has not ruled on the issue since 1946 in a case called United States v. Causby. Back then, the court ruled that the federal government violated a farmer’s property rights when low flying military aircraft passed over his barn and disturbed his chickens. The airport near his farm drove him out of the chicken business, and he won compensation.
In Causby, the Supremes ruled that an owner’s property’s rights extend to “at least as much of the space above the ground as he can occupy or use in connection with the land.”
“This industry is growing quickly — and it’s to some extent being stifled by the legal uncertainty surrounding these issues,” James Mackler, an attorney who represents Boggs, told the newspaper.
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The problem with the Supreme Court’s standard is that it seems to give drones the right to fly through empty air over a property as long as they do not interfere with the use of the property. That means it may be legal to shoot down a drone that flew in front of your window – which seemingly would be an invasion of privacy — but not legal to blast one flying a few feet over the perimeter of your property.
Merideth and Boggs disagree over how close the drone was to Merideth’s land. Boggs says it was about 200 feet above the land, while Merideth says it was much closer. Even though the judge dismissed criminal charges against Merideth, the civil case is ongoing. It is one that could lead to an important legal precedent, affecting all Americans.
If a drone flew over your property, would you shoot it down? Share your opinion in the section below:
Without a doubt, the main things people think of when considering buying rural land for an off-grid property are size, location and cost.
But there are several other steps and factors you’ll need to consider to ascertain if the area is viable for living in and farming, especially in the long term. Going through these guidelines will help you make a better assessment, and spare you from potential problems ahead — especially if you’ve been a city-slicker all your life and are only now transitioning into country living. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it may include items you may not have thought of.
1. Soil condition. Is the soil arable? Too rocky? Too sandy? Clay-like? Contaminated with chemicals from fertilizers used by previous owners? These factors, along with soil acidity and pH, would determine the level of success and challenges you’ll have in growing your food. I would recommend getting a soil test done, and doing so on the specific areas you’re planning a garden.
2. Safety from hazards — natural and man-made. You may wish to steer clear of known earthquake faults, nuclear plants, tornado belts, flood plains, drought-prone areas, and low-lying coastal villages (at risk of hurricanes and tsunamis).
3. Water source. This could be a stream, an underground spring, an existing well shaft or a small creek or pond. An uphill spring is perfect, so you could do a gravity-fed water catchment system. If you’re looking to drill a well, ask the neighbors how deep they were able to tap their well.
Check the water quality, and how land is — and was — used in the surrounding area, not just yours. Is or was there a commercial orchard in the distance? A mining operation? A feedlot? A factory? You don’t want any of their wastes or chemical run-off in your groundwater. Find out about water rights, too. Some states don’t even allow residents to collect rainwater right from their own roof gutters.
4. Accessibility of goods and services. Depending on your and your family’s needs, you’ll need to consider the distance and time it would take for you to get to the nearest town for supplies and hard-to-find service – for anything from automotive repair to computer parts. Probably a few non-negotiables for many folks are a hospital, trauma center, fire station or any kind of emergency response. That would be very important if you or a family member have a medical condition that could need urgent care.
5. Zoning and building restrictions. Look at land use regulations, covenants and homeowners association rules. Can residents build or dig any structure they want — a straw bale house, a tree house, a pond, some cabins to rent out? Some neighborhoods set a limit on what kind and number of livestock homeowners can keep. While some counties have strict laws, others, especially those in the most remote locations, have virtually none. And not having them could be just as bad. What if the neighbors opened a huge poultry or hog operation in the distance and the smell and the flies start sweeping over to you? If peace and privacy are critical for you, go for residential and strictly non-commercial zones, as you wouldn’t want enterprises, big or small, building structures near you – from even a small, seemingly passive thing as a cell phone tower, to an all-out, invasive industrial park. Are you near a forest reserve or property owned by the government? Make sure property lines are clear and yours is a good distance from them. Look out for companies that do fracking, timber harvesting or mining of any sort. You don’t know if they’d be looking to encroach in your area in the future.
6. Woods. The benefits of having or living near wooded areas are endless: privacy and concealment, a buffer from dust and strong winds, and availability of timber and firewood. The natural habitat would also mean edible wildlife for you and your family.
Aside from hunting and foraging, the woods could also mean hours of recreation: exploring, trail running, camping and swimming if there’s a nearby pond or river. If you’re purchasing wooded land, find out exactly if you’d be allowed to cut — and how much.
7. Clearing. On the other hand, if you’re going to do some serious homesteading, you’ll need sunny, open spaces for gardening and livestock grazing. Don’t forget areas needed for barns and animal pens, an extra storage shed, garage or workshop, and a compost pile. Budget permitting, you might also consider building a greenhouse and potting shed. Off-grid energy installations like solar panels and wind turbines might also require specific locations besides your roof. And, if you decide to use a compost toilet instead of a septic, look for the most strategic location for an outhouse.
8. Communications. Unless you’re ready to totally unplug and live without phone or Internet connection, check the availability of telecom services. Check cell phone signals in different areas of the property. Not only would you want to remain connected to loved ones and the rest of the world, you might also consider working online by selling goods and services. Find out if there’s more than one service provider, so there’s an alternative if you’re not happy with one.
9. Like-minded neighbors. Whether they be somewhat similar to you in the area of self-sufficiency, farming practices, political views or faith, living next to people who share the same values will make life a lot easier for you. Neighbors can be an important asset and even a resource when living off the grid. They can come to your aid in an emergency, they can share valuable knowledge and skills in all things faming, they can lend tools and equipment you don’t yet have; and they can provide good-old company when things get lonely.
What would you add to our list? Share your suggestions in the section below: