I love the beautiful nature in Colorado and how adventurous many of the locals are.
There has also been a substantial off-grid living boom in the past decade, with many people aiming to live completely self-reliant, sustainable lives.
This surge has led to some friendly off-grid laws in Colorado.
- The Off-Grid Laws of Every State in America
- How to Go Off-Grid: Checklist
- Which States Are Best for Homesteading?
- 1 Acre Homestead Layout Plans
Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Colorado?
In many places in Colorado, off-grid living is entirely legal.
However, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do whatever you want on your property.
Most counties have stringent zoning laws and building codes. You’ll probably need a permit for everything from your toilet to wood stove and have to endure multiple inspections. And, while you might be able to do everything legally, building an off-grid home in Colorado is going to be very expensive – especially if you want water rights.
Colorado Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living
Zoning laws are created by local governments and determine what residents are allowed to do on their property. Compared to other states, most areas in Colorado have very detailed and restrictive zoning laws.
There used to be some rural counties in Colorado without zoning laws. However, these areas have started to create and enforce zoning laws. For example, Delta County was considered one of Colorado’s best places to go off-grid because of its lack of zoning laws. But, starting April 2021, the entire county is zoned.
Below are just some of the rules you can expect to find in Colorado zoning laws:
- Permitted uses: There are many restrictions to what you can do on your land. Some types of agriculture are even prohibited or limited (especially livestock) on land zoned as Agriculture.
- Minimum lot size: Many places have a minimum lot size of 20 or 35 acres for agriculture-zoned land.
- Who can live there: Zoning laws often state that only family members can live on a property. Farmhands may be allowed on agricultural land, but they will need to be legally employed. If you want multiple families to live on the same plot, you’ll need to find land zoned as “Residential Multi-Dwelling.”
- Accessory buildings: There are severe restrictions on accessory buildings. You usually cannot have anyone living in an accessory dwelling unless it is a hired farmhand and their family members. Even then, you will probably be required to get a permit.
Best Places in Colorado for Off-Grid Living
Below are some of the counties in Colorado with the most relaxed zoning laws.
- Custer County: This rural county allows farming and ranching as a right on all land. They even allow green burials. The main obstacle is that some zones require a minimum of 80 acres of land. There are still annoying permit requirements for virtually everything, though, and, as one resident said, “HOAs are crazy out here.”
- Montezuma County: Montezuma has very relaxed zoning rules, and most of the land is zoned for agricultural use, though that does mean there may be sizeable minimum lot requirements. They do not enforce building codes.
- El Paso County: Outside of Colorado Springs, the zoning laws are relatively relaxed. There is even some forest land that is zoned to allow residential use.
- Huerfano County: This county, which includes Walsenburg, has laws favorable to tiny homes and more relaxed building codes.
- Rio Grande County: Farming is allowed by right even on residential-zoned lands. The minimum lot size required for wells and on-site sewage systems is lower than in other areas of Colorado.
- Costilla County: Many people flocked to Costilla County to live off-grid because of the cheap land prices. The county has started cracking down and enforcing codes, but it is still one of the more relaxed places to live off-grid in Colorado.
- Saguache County: This county still does not have any codes. Please let us know if that changes.
- Las Animas County: The minimum lot size is smaller in this county. The zoning laws and building codes are slightly more relaxed too.
Land Covenants in Colorado
Another thing to be aware of when going off-grid in Colorado is land covenants. Also called CC&Rs (covenants, conditions, and restrictions), these are written into the property deed. Even if the local law says that something is allowed, the covenant takes precedent. Counties don’t enforce covenants, but you could be taken to court for violating the rules.
While covenants are most often found in subdivisions, many rural or forest Colorado properties have environmental covenants. Ensure you check with the county clerk to see if there are any covenants on the property before you buy or build.
Colorado’s 35 Acre Law
You’ll probably have to buy at least 35 acres of land for an off-grid property in Colorado. This is because of a 1972 law that prohibited landowners from splitting property into less than 35 acres: parcels less than 35 acres require subdivision approval in almost all counties. Some counties have even higher acreage requirements.
Land on less than 35 acres is required to meet state laws regarding sewage, curbs, gutters, and other infrastructure. This is why parcels of land less than 35 acres often cost as much as (or even more than) parcels of 35 acres or more: you are essentially paying for the existing infrastructure on that small parcel.
There are numerous benefits of buying 35 acres or more in Colorado, such as having more water rights or having livestock. Farmland in Colorado is already expensive, and the 35-acre rule means going off-grid can be very expensive.
Also Read: What Is a Homestead Declaration?
Off-Grid Electricity in Colorado
Colorado gets a lot of sunshine, and solar power is very popular in the state. You can expect solar or other off-grid electricity systems to be specifically addressed in your county’s building codes. There are state incentives and rebates for installing solar panels. Solar systems are exempt from property tax.
However, local building codes may make it illegal not to have any form of electrical lighting. For example, businesses may be required to have lighting for safety reasons.
Off-Grid Water in Colorado
Colorado is one of the strictest states in regards to water rights. Under the rule of prior appropriation, known as the Colorado Doctrine, all surface water and tributary groundwater in the state is a public resource. You must get a permit to use that water. Getting water use permits can be very complicated and expensive and might even be impossible depending on your property’s size and where it’s located.
To make matters worse, a landowner must have water before being allowed to build on the land. You will likely need to pay a small fortune for property that already has water rights or thoroughly investigate your water options before buying any land.
For more, see the guide to water rights from the Colorado State Government.
Even if you have a stream, lake, or other surface water on your property, you don’t have the right to use it. You first must apply for a water permit. The application must include a plan for how you plan to use the water, how much water you will use, what “beneficial use” the water is for, and other details.
If your permit is approved, you then use the water for the described purpose. Once the water is used, it has been “appropriated” under the rule of prior appropriation. The surface water rights can then be sold to third parties. Or you can purchase those existing water rights from whoever owns them.
Read a more detailed account of how to get surface water rights in Colorado.
You need a permit from the Colorado Department of Naturel Resources to dig a well on your property.
If your property is less than 35 acres in size, you will only get a household use well permit. This means that the water can be used inside your home but not for outdoor uses like watering plants or livestock.
However, a loophole to this law is that you can garden indoors – such as starting an aquaponics garden.
Properties that are 35 acres or more can get a domestic well permit, which allows you to use water outdoors. However, there are limits on how much water you can pump per minute.
The groundwater laws are full of exceptions that might further prohibit you from getting a well, such as if your property is in a designated water basin or there is a “plan for augmentation.”
See this document from the Division of Water Resources for details on Colorado well water permits and rules.
Rainwater harvesting in Colorado is legal. However, it is highly regulated. Under House Bill 1005, residential homeowners are allowed to have two rain barrels with a combined capacity of 110 gallons. The rainwater can only be collected from their roof and must be used on their property. The water is only for outdoor purposes and cannot be used indoors or for potable water.
There is a useful loophole in the law, though: so long as it goes onto the ground, you can divert as much rainwater as you want. That means you could rig a rainwater system that diverts water onto your garden.
Read more details about the law.
As of 2015, Colorado Regulation 86 lays out the rules for greywater recycling in the state. There are rules about how the water can be used (typically only outdoors) and gallons per day. Under the law, water from bathroom and laundry room sinks, bathtubs, showers, and laundry machines can be recycled. Wastewater from toilets, urinals, kitchen sinks, dishwashers, and nonlaundry utility sinks cannot be recycled.
Sewage and Waste Removal
Colorado is one of the more progressive states when it comes to off-grid waste disposal. The law actually mentions compost toilets and other alternative systems (which isn’t the case with many state laws), so there is no gray area.
However, while you will be legally allowed to have alternative waste systems, you’ll still most likely be required to have a septic system or hook up to the municipal sewer system.
Read Colorado’s on-site wastewater treatment laws.
Compost toilets are legal in Colorado so long as they are approved by the National Sanitation Foundation or equivalent testing program.
The law states that,
residue from the unit shall be properly disposed of by acceptable solid waste practices.
You are not allowed to dispose of waste on the ground or in water. You’ll also need an approved system for treating wastewater from the composting toilet. So, in most cases, you will also be required to have a septic system.
You’ll have to check with your local government to see what their specific rules are.
Outhouses are essentially illegal in Colorado. They can only be used as a temporary method (no more than 7 days) and in very remote areas where “other approved sanitary means are unavailable.”
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Other Off-Grid Laws in Colorado
- Wood stoves: To prevent air pollution, Colorado strictly regulates which types of wood stoves can be used and in which circumstances. Read the rules here.
- Tiny homes: In most cases, tiny homes on wheels will be considered an RV in Colorado. Local zoning laws usually make it illegal to live in an RV. However, Colorado law is becoming more friendly to tiny homes, so long as those homes are on a permanent foundation and have approved wastewater systems.
- Homeschooling: Colorado has somewhat strict regulations regarding homeschooling. You are required to notify the government, teach state-mandated subjects, and there are assessment requirements. Read more here.
Do you live off-grid in Colorado? Let us know about your experiences with the laws in the comments section below!