Monthly Archives: September 2013

The Myth of Land Ownership

“…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
– Benjamin Franklin

“The bank – the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

As I outlined my initial vision for an intentional community a few days ago, I know that there are a number of people who read this who balked at the idea of leasing property instead of owning it… I’ve already received emails from a few. I will be very honest and say that when I first heard of this idea, my instinct was to walk away from it.

The idea of owning one’s own land has been drilled into us for such a long time that few of us question it. For well over a decade, I have been dreaming of owning a few (or many) acres where I could homestead and raise my family. I have gone to bed many nights thinking of what it would look like and how I would design it and what I would grow. Until very recently, the idea of not owning my own land was, frankly, not an option. I must own my own land! I don’t think I ever seriously stopped to ask the basic questions… why do I need to own the land and do I really own it?

Why do I need to own the land? Let’s answer this question first. I think there are a number of reasons, but the main ones can be lumped into two categories: Freedom and Investment

Freedom. We want freedom to do what we want, to build what we want, to grow what we want, to live how we want. We want to be in charge of ourselves and not have someone else tell us what we can or cannot do. When we examine this a bit further, we realize that we don’t actually get these freedoms just because we own the property. We really don’t have the freedom to do whatever we want to all the time. If I lived in the suburbs and decided to start shooting a rifle in my backyard, I would quickly have some heart to heart discussions with the local law enforcement agency. If I lived in the country and started to build a quarry, I would have some explaining to do with the county officials. If I started growing marijuana on my land in the U.S., if the right (or wrong) people noticed it, I would be dealing with some consequences. This perceived freedom is not really freedom. It depends on what I want to do and where I chose to live. In addition, we always need to ask ourselves IF we should be doing something just because we CAN do something. Killing all the plant life on your land is possible if you own your property, but is it the right thing to do? There is obviously some truth to it, but the more I examine this argument for owning your own land, the more I realize that the freedom argument is not as all-encompassing as I once thought.

Investment. We want to buy a piece of property and let its value grow over time. Sounds great. But are you wealthy enough to buy the land for cash? Most of us need a mortgage to purchase property. Well, a mortgage, which comes from the Latin meaning death (mort) guarantee/grip (gage), is going to cost you a whole lot more than the poperty value when you bought it. So we will be in debt, and not own the property, for 20 to 30 years, and pay a lot more than the selling price by the time we are done. If land prices increase, and we chose not to sell, then we have a chance at making a profit. In the process, we will have worked full time to pay off the mortgage, and about time we pay off the debt, we have lost the best years of our life. We finally have some free time to enjoy our family, but the kids have moved out and started their own independant lives by now. So now we have a debt free home and some property and hopefully the kids will bring the grandchildren by to visit a few times before we die.  That is not my kind of investment.

“I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
– Jon Stewart

“They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.”
– Red Cloud

So let’s answer the second question. Do I really own the land?

Let’s face it. We have an average life expectancy of 79 years if we are an American. Some of us make it a bit longer, and some us don’t quite make it that far. The average age of a first-time homeowner is 34 according to the most recent American Housing Survey data from 2009. If we get the typical 30 year mortgage, during which time the bank actually owns the property, then we will be “free and clear” by age 64. Therefore, we “own” the property for 15 years. Now at anytime while you are paying the mortgage, try missing some payments and see what happens. At anytime during or after the mortgage is paid off, try not paying property taxes. How’s that going to work out? Let’s not get into eminent domain! No, we don’t truly own any land. We have a piece of paper that shows we have paid a lot of money to live in a location that the government can take away from us pretty darn easily if they so choose or we make a few mistakes. Granted, it is the best we have as far as legal ownership goes, but it is not anywhere close to the idea that we truly own the land.

I don’t want to get too esoteric, but when we stomp our foot down and boldly say we own a piece of property for 15 year, or let’s double and say 30 years, when that land, the Earth, has been around exponentially longer… it’s a little silly. It’s kind of like a little clown fish claiming a tiny head of coral growing on the Great Barrier Reef.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
– Aldo Leopold

Well, now. Where does that leave us? To me, it is not without hope. Not even slightly. It is rather freeing. We can stop looking at land as a thing to own, as a thing to conquer… a thing to stress and fret about. A thing to strive for as if it were the most important thing and not our faith and our families. We are suddenly able to step out of the here and now. We can see ourselves as a small piece in the big puzzle of time. We get to lay the groundwork, if we do it right, for generation after generation after us. We get to be the foundation. Maybe, a few hundred years from now, our great-great-great grandchildren will consider us their founding fathers and mothers.

Abigail_Garden

My daughter picking beets in the garden… these are my most precious memories, not making a mortgage payment.

This is the reason I am striving to build this community. The leasing plan is not just a scheme for investors to make money. If I could afford to do this without investors, I would do it in a moment. I would build this to slowly be given away. I need nothing when it is my time to leave this Earth. However, that is not the way the world works right now. We need to work within the system at times to achieve the goals we desire. The lease system opens the door to so many people who have big dreams of working with nature, with the soil, for their health and for their children’s. It allows us to work past this huge monster called the mortgage. It gives us a running chance. All we need to do is let go of the myth of land ownership.

 

ADDENDUM
It appears from comments here and on facebook and through emails that people have misunderstood what I am saying or that I did not explain myself well enough. So let me clarify a few of my thoughts on this subject…

I am not against ownership by any means. I have no issues with people buying land or getting a mortgage to facilitate this. However, we need to understand that what we are being sold is different than what is delivered. It’s not quite a bait and switch, but it is close. We are sold that purchasing a home is the key to the American dream, that we will have freedom and independence, and we have just made an investment that will grow into an inheritance for our children’s children.

The reality is often quite different. The key here is my use of the word often. Of course, there are people who purchase land and are not chained to their mortgage for a full 30 years and pay over three times the buying price in interest. There are people who pay off the mortgage early and live well below their means. But the reality is that most people do not do this. They buy into the dream and eventually realize, often way too late in life, that it is not what they thought it was.

Finally, even if we do everything “right”, the government has the ability to change the rules and take what we have worked so hard to gain. We need to understand this. We need to understand that we walk the Earth for only a short time. We need to make good choices (which are different for each person) on how best to spend our time and energy.

 

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Photo References:

  • http://www.worldpropertychannel.com/news-assets/Home-Foreclosure-bank-owned.jpg

 

My Plan for an Intentional Community

“No one has to sell us about the pleasures of a small town. We know them well, if not from reality, then from the old Andy Griffith Show, or It’s a Wonderful Life. But the small town we all know best is the one deep in our heart, with its elm-shaded streets, little clapboard houses and picket fences, and gnarled fruit trees and run-amok vegetable gardens, where doors are never locked, and where shopkeepers stand in front of their shops and greet you, and the cop greets you, all by name, and you stop and chat with them because what else is life for, and when the bells toll at noon the shops all close up, and you all go home for lunch, a nap, then out to hoe the melons or to do a little fishing; and everyone you liked in fourth grade is still your friend, and it’s a swell place to be a kid and perfect to be a family, and it’s a humane place to grow old, and, when you have to go, it’s a good place to die.

If such a town doesn’t exist, the big question is “Why?” If we all dream about it, if we all long for it – and recent surveys found seven out of ten of us would love to live there if we could – then where in damnation is it? When all it takes is a few good-natured people; a few to teach school, a few to own the stores, a few to farm the land, some to mend the sick and a bar to tend the healthy, then why isn’t there such a town behind every tree? I mean only a few of us dream of having missiles, tanks, and bombers, and rockets to the moon, yet the world is littered with them; hardly anyone dreams of pesticides and freeways, yet they’re chocking us to death; no one dreams of junk mail, yet we’re drowning in the stuff; no one I know of dreams of stripmalls and fast food chains, yet there are a hundred to a mile! How the hell did it happen that the things hardly any of us want are burying us all, while the simple town we all dream of we can hardly find? What is all this? – Really!”

– Ferenc Máté

 

So, how do we create this town, this community? Over the past few weeks, as I spent a lot of time with my family and some old friends, I have been struck, obsessed maybe, with the idea of creating a community.

I have been doing a lot of research about intentional communities. There are websites devoted to the subject. I have been struck by a few things. First, many of these intentional communities are, well, just odd. It may be interesting to visit a nudist commune for a while, but there is no way I am raising a family there (no offense to any commune-living nudists… live how you want!). I don’t want to start my own religion. I don’t want to worship the goddess Earth. I don’t want to play with crystals. I don’t want to create an empire or a feudal kingdom. I don’t want to try and pretend to be a hippie from fifty years ago. And I don’t want to be shackled with debt to live a good life.

I just want to live a reasonable life with friends and family in a peaceful community where my kids are safe and nurtured. I want to live in a place like Ferenc Máté described above. Unfortunately, I can’t find a city or town that really fits the description above. The existing intentional communities are either full of odd folks or people with a rather extreme religious bent, or they are way too expensive to buy into. As Geoff Lawton says, what started as an eco-village is now an ego-village, since only the wealthy can afford to live there.

The second thing I have seen while researching intentional communities is that most of these communities do not last more than a few years. Most fall apart. There are a number of reasons for this: low numbers of people and in-fighting are the most common reasons I can find.

The third big issue with intentional communities is that if the community does last longer than a few years, it takes a decade or more for them to start doing anything substantial. This may also contribute to my second observation above; the group falls apart because nothing is happening. I think a big reason for this is that most of these groups have very convoluted decision making processes. It takes weeks or months to make simple decisions.

So, I’ll ask again, how do we create a reasonable community that is not composed of people on the fringe, that stands the test of time, and can build itself in a reasonable amount of time? I do not think I have the only answer, but I think I have one answer. I would love to take credit for this, but we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. My plan is built largely on a very similar project starting out in Texas and run by Jack Spirko. I have been reading a lot about other active and successful intentional communities from around the world, and Xavier Hawk in North Carolina has developed a key component for success which I will discuss below. I have also been reading a lot about the Transition Town projects around the world, and my plan was assisted from this. Finally, there is a wealth of good information in the Permaculture Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison. So, my plan is not all of my own creation. I am trying to take what makes sense and what has been shown to work in the real world.

 

“One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose site of the shore for a very long time.”

– Andre Gide

 

I have spoken with a few friends and family members about this. I have received enthusiastic support and skeptical questions, both of which were, and continue to be, appreciated. I will be very honest though… I don’t care what 99.9% of the world thinks. I just need a fraction of 1% of the visionaries of the world to take action with me.

 

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

– King Solomon

 

Goal: Create a sustainable, resilient, liberty-minded, ecologically-aware community that provides its members access to clean water and air, space to build an appropriate, low to no-debt home, land to raise healthy food, and a place where our children are safe to play, learn, and grow with their families and nature.

Initial Plan:

  • Create a corporation or land-trust entity.
  • Find investors to fund the purchase of 200-500 acres. I am currently searching in central to eastern Tennessee.
  • Using Permaculture principles, design major water harvesting/storage features and access (i.e. roads, trails, etc.).
  • Allot 100-200 single-acre plots which will be available to lease.
  • Allot common spaces for resident use.
  • Allot a “Main Street” area for commercial activity.
  • Allot 100-200 acres for farming activity.
  • Reserve a portion of the land for wilderness (Zone 5 for those familiar with Permaculture Zones).

Lease
*note that all dollar amounts are subject to change based on land purchase price… but this is close to what I think it will take.
I first heard of the lease concept for an intentional community from Xavier Hawk. The management of a community in a benevolent business plan solves much of the funding issues. It makes the community much more affordable to the residents, and it provides an ongoing cash flow for steady community improvement and maintenance. I think this is the key to making an intentional community a reality for many of us. Some of the people I have spoken with expressed skepticism about the lease fee, yet they pay more than that to belong to a homeowners association. The property tax alone in many developed areas is often well above $200/month.
For more on leasing land read my article on what I call the Myth of Land Ownership.

  • 1-Acre plots are leased for 99 years
  • Lease is renewable, transferable, heritable, or able to be sold at market value
  • One time buy-in for $2,000
  • Monthly lease fee for $200/month (this can only be increased if property taxes increase)

Where does the money go?

  • The buy-in fee will go to initial infrastructure development.
  • A portion (to be determined) of the monthly lease fees will go to the investors who enabled the purchase of the land in the first place.
  • At the beginning (first 48-72 months depending on occupancy) the monthly lease fees will be used to quickly pay off the land debt.
  • Monthly lease fees will be used to pay for a community manager.
  • Monthly lease fees will be used to partially pay for a farm manager (remainder of farm manager salary will come from CSA – Community Supported Agriculture system).
  • After the debt is paid off, the lease fees will be used for continued community development and ongoing costs.
  • Ongoing costs will cover property taxes, insurance, legal fees, and ongoing land and infrastructure maintenance (i.e. roads, utilities, etc.)

Rules

  • Rules will be very minimal, but they will all be based on the Permaculture Prime Directive and Ethics:
    • Prime Directive: The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children.
    • Ethics: Care of the Earth, Care of People, and Return of the Surplus.
  • The intention is to build a very free, liberty-minded community. If you are not harming another person or breaking the law, then you can do what you want.
  • There will be a “no complaint will be investigated until you go TALK to the person about it” clause… Jack Spirko has a great plan for this which we will be emulating.

One-Acre Plots

  • There will be as many 1-acre plots as possible on the land. This will be determined by the landscape itself, as we are building a sustainable community.
  • A person may be able to hold lease two plots, but likely no more than that. Our goal is to build a community. We can not do that if, for instance, five people lease all the plots.
  • A leasee can do what they want to on their land, so long as they do not violate the Prime Directive, the Ethics, or the lease holder agreement.
  • Water harvesting and food production will be encouraged on the plots. Permaculture consultation will be available to leasees (this may be free or may be at greatly reduced costs) to help those that have little to no experience.

Housing

  • A leasee can have any home they wish on their plot of land. If they want to live in a tent or build a 10,000 square foot mansion, it is up to them. However, I believe this community will not attract the mansion builders. There are “community garden lots” in Europe that are leased by individuals for 99 years, and the leasees build vacation and permanent homes there.
  • My goal is to provide a place where a family can build a home without going into debt for the 30 best years of their lives.
  • The intention is to focus on natural and appropriate home design and building, and I imagine that many straw-bale, cob, earth-bank, and earth-ship style homes will be built. I also think there will be many yurts and tiny-homes as well. RVs and mobile homes will also be welcomed.
  • One goal is to provide some small rental homes (tiny-homes?) which a leasee can rent while they are building their own home.
  • Many people may only use their land as a vacation spot and will build nothing or just a minimal place to spend a few weeks a year.
  • Options for housing are almost endless, but we will offer alternative home building workshops on a regular basis.
  • All housing will have to be legal according to the state and county code. This is possible even with alternative designs. The community will help a person navigate their way through this.

Utilities

  • We will install utility mains (water and electric) to be available for the one-acre plots. Many will use them, but some leasees will chose to go entirely off-grid.
  • We will install high-speed internet at the site. This is a must as many of the initial community members will be telecommuters.
  • Waste will be managed as mandated by the county – this may be septic, but people will likely have the option for composting toilets as well.
  • As time goes on, we may be able to produce our own energy with wind, solar, hydro, or even geothermal depending on where we are located.

Community Development

  • Ponds, dams, swales, and other water collection and storage features.
  • Roads
  • Trails
  • Perimeter fences if needed
  • Common-use buildings (canning and preserving kitchens, tool loan shop, workshops, hacker/makerspaces, laundry mat, library, pavilions, etc.)
  • Teaching/Education Center (see below)
  • Shuttles to nearby cities/airports
  • Hopefully much more as time goes on

Community Supported Agriculture

  • The monthly fees will go, in part, to pay the salary of a farm manager. The remaining portion of the farm manager’s salary will come from farm production sales.
  • The farm manager will utilize the 100-200 acres allotted to food production.
  • The farm manager will ideally be a person who has experience running pastured livestock.
  • The farm manager will also manage a large market garden and main crop plots.
  • Leasees will have first right of refusal to buy CSA shares at cost – this price will be determined when we can
  • The goal will be to produce a minimum of four CSA shares per leased lot. Likely the land will provide more than that, and the excess shares will be sold at market price to people outside the community.
  • Figure an average of 4 people per lot, and there will be 100-200 lots, so that means 400-800 people. There are those that will say 100-200 acres is not enough land to feed a whole community. Well, that depends. It is all on how the land is managed. The Dervaes family in southern California is producing 3 tons of food on a fifth of an acre. This is a very intensively managed lot, but it shows what is possible with good design.
  • Finally, remember that the goal here is to be sustainable and resilient, not isolationist.

Commercial Enterprises

  • Indoor Market
  • Farmers Market area
  • Coffee Shop
  • Cafe/Restaurant – size will grow as needed
  • Brewery/Winery
  • Likely much more…

Teaching/Education Center

  • Permaculture courses
    • Full Permaculture Design Certificate courses
    • Topic specific courses (Earthworks, Urban Design, etc.)
    • Full-Time and Weekend only courses
  • Permaculture Internships
  • Gardening courses
  • Livestock courses
  • Alternative housing courses
  • Many more…

Local Community
It is very important for us to be part of the local community. This is not going to be an isolationist endeavor. We will go out of our way to connect with the local community, government, and education centers. We need to be working on research projects with the local or nearby universities. We will invite professors and teachers from local schools and leaders of local organizations to visit and possibly teach in our Education Center. We need to be a benefit and an asset to the local area in as many areas as we can.

Bioregional Community
We will help to assess and catalog the specifics of the bioregion in which we live. This is brilliantly outlines in Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison. In brief, we need to define and provide information on native and domesticated plants and animals suited to our bioregion, how to raise it, manage it, harvest/process it, and market it. We need to provide the similar information on appropriate building and energy technology suited to our bioregion. This documentation continues to include manufacturing, informatics, security and future trends/threats, social outlets, health services, transportation, and more. Some of this information may be available in whole or part and maintained by local organizations and education centers; however, there is still much to learn and document. As our community grows and learns, we need to share our knowledge for everyone’s benefit.

Religion
Religion and spirituality are vital parts of who we are as human beings. Personally, I am a very devout and rather conservative protestant Christian. Much of what I do is filtered through this worldview. I have stated before that I have very strong reasons for believing what I do, and I will gladly share it with you if you are interested. However, you do not have to believe what I do to be part of this community. Again, this will be a liberty-minded community. I am very good friends with Catholics, Muslims, Agnostics, and Universalists. I can agree to disagree with your spirituality and still live and work beside you as a fellow human being. This is my mindset as we begin this endeavor.

Politics
I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican. I am liberty and constitutionally minded. I will strongly encourage you to understand what and why you are voting, but I don’t care who you vote for.

Non-Profit Arm
As one way for the corporation to protect itself from excess taxation, and because it is just a quality thing to do, we will likely create a non-profit, Permaculture mission organization. I am still trying to organize my thoughts on this, but a small percentage of the monthly lease fees will be contributed to this non-profit organization whose goal is to help teach and implement Permaculture in developing countries. All leasees will be invited to participate in this organization and its trips to other parts of the world. I will share more information on this as I can.

Management
I am still working on this. I can tell you that strict democracies in these communities are what often bring the whole project to a screeching halt. The management has to be lean and able to make quick and final decisions. There will be a CEO-type person (initially, this will likely be myself) who will work closely with a small board of directors composed of investors and elected members of the community. I do not want to build my own little empire. I don’t need it. I don’t want it. I want a rich and reasonable life for myself and my children and my children’s children. I want this community to stand the test of time. I want this community to be alive and vibrant for my great-great-grandchildren and beyond. So, while I may be here to help start this community, I am planning for it to be resilient and sustaining when I am long gone. I am designing myself out of this community at the very beginning. Now I just have to work out the details.

 

So, there it is. This is my initial overview of how I plan to build an intentional community. I have tried to lay out my vision of how it could be. I have such a passion for this, and I hope I have shared that today. I hope you will consider joining me on this journey.

 

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

– Mary Oliver

 

 

Had to take a break…

I’ve had to take a break from pretty much all of life’s activities to focus on my family. We have been blessed yet again with another little girl. She was born about two and a half weeks ago. Both she and my wife are doing great, and my other children have been fantastic with their new sibling.

I’ll be getting back to my fairly regular articles soon. This short break from writing has reinforced how much I love researching and sharing Permaculture. If you have recently signed up, and I had a large number of new subscribers in the last four weeks, you should be getting more frequent updates from me in the near future.

With all the down time and late nights and long flights, I have been able to really spend time thinking about another big project. I plan to share it with you in the next few weeks. I am very excited about it as I see this shaping a significant portion of my life’s work for the next few years. Stay tuned!

All the best!

 

By |September 22nd, 2013|Kids|5 Comments