With its abundance of affordable rural land, Montana is becoming increasingly popular for off-grid living.
Before you start looking for your dream property in Montana, make sure you understand the laws about off-grid living, especially for zoning, water rights, electric, and waste removal.
Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Montana?
Off-grid living is legal in Montana. State and local laws even specifically address many off-grid systems, making it much easier to get a permit to build your home using newer or experimental methods legally.
However, don’t expect that you’ll be able to do whatever you want on your land. You’ll ultimately need to get permits and follow building regulations if you want to live legally off-the-grid in Montana.
Montana Zoning Laws and Off-Grid Living
Local zoning laws ultimately determine what you can do on your land when it comes to living off-grid legally. Luckily, Montana has some of the most relaxed zoning laws in the USA.
For example, North Gallatin Canyon regulations do not require construction permits. The main rules are about putting up signs on your property. In nearby Bear Canyon, there is zoning, but residents can keep animals and grow food as a right, even on 1-acre plots.
As with Texas, there is even a lot of land in Montana that still has no zoning at all (such as in Stillwater County). You’ll be able to do whatever you want on your own land. Living on land without zoning isn’t always a good thing, though. Montana is experiencing huge population growth, meaning a subdivision could pop up right across from your previously unoccupied land.
Every county in Montana is required to have a “subdivision ordinance.” These regulate plots of land less than 160 acres to preserve open space. As an alternative to zoning, some areas have “development permits” or “performance standards,” which focus more on building standards and lot sizes than what you can do with the property. Read more about those regulations here.
If there aren’t any zoning laws and you want there to be (such as to prevent a massive subdivision from being built nearby), Montana does have laws that allow residents to adopt or amend districts.
Off-Grid Electricity in Montana
Using off-grid electricity is completely legal in Montana. However, you will need an electrical permit to install your system.
Local counties may also require a building permit and have zoning rules about the size and placement of the system. Currently, Bozeman has the strictest rules in Montana about installing solar systems. You can read about solar regulations and permit costs in Montana here.
Because it is such a windy state, small wind turbines are a good option for off-grid living in Montana. Compared to other states, the rules on wind turbines are pretty relaxed. Read more about wind power in Montana here.
Montana does offer some incentives for using renewable energy. You can see a list of incentives here.
- What It Is Like to Live without Power
- Solar Power for Off Grid Living
- Best Off-Grid Refrigeration Solutions
Off-Grid Water in Montana
Virtually all of Montana is very dry, and many parts are under constant drought conditions. Because of this, water rights are highly controlled, and you may have trouble getting enough water for your off-grid property.
As a result of the drought, the State, and many local governments, have rules about how to use water. For example, you can’t water your lawn in some cities without a permit.
Who Owns the Water in Montana?
Under Montana law, all water belongs to the State. However, people can own the right to use the water. Getting water rights is a highly complex process. It isn’t guaranteed that you’ll get water rights, even if you have water on or below your property.
Key Points about Obtaining Water Rights in Montana
- Under the 1973 Water Use Act, all new water rights must be obtained from the Montana Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). This usually requires a permit, fees, and extensive documentation.
- Water rights in Montana are generally tied to a property. For example, if you buy a property that has water rights, the water rights will be transferred to you. This isn’t always the case, though. Landowners can detach the land from the water rights, such as by selling the water rights to one person and the land to another.
- Montana uses the law of prior appropriation. This means that whoever obtained the water rights first has the first dibs to use the water. For example, in a drought, an upstream junior water rights holder might not be allowed to use water passing through their property so the senior rights holder downstream can use it.
- You must use the water to keep the rights.
- Water must be put to beneficial use.
- Many basins in Montana are closed to water appropriations. You will not be able to get a permit to use this water.
For more info about Montana water rights laws, read:
- Montana State University’s Guide to Water Rights
- Water Rights in Montana Handbook
- A Buyer’s Guide to Water Rights in Montana
- DNRC Water Rights Fact Sheet
If you have a stream or lake on your property, you will need a beneficial use permit. The permit process is long and complicated, so you’ll need to plan ahead.
There is an exception to the surface water permit requirement. You can construct a livestock pit or reservoir without a permit if all the following are met:
- It is located in a non-perennial flowing stream
- The capacity is less than 15 acre-feet with an annual appropriation of fewer than 30 acre-feet
- Constructed on and accessible to a parcel of land 40 acres or larger and owned or under the applicant’s control.
Even with this exception, you will still need to file for a provisional permit within 60 days of constructing the reservoir. The DNRC can revoke the permit if it affects prior water rights.
In Montana, you do not need a water rights permit for groundwater if the appropriation is less than 35 gallons per minute and no more than 10 acre-feet of water per year.
Within 60 days of drilling the well and putting it to use, you’ll need to submit a notice to the DNRC. Wells using more water than this require a Groundwater Application for Beneficial Use Permit, which is a long, complex process.
Rainwater Harvesting Laws in Montana
Even though the State owns “atmospheric water,” rainwater harvesting is legal in Montana and does not require a permit.
The state website says,
“You can collect rainwater from rooftops in mosquito-proof containers. The water can be used later on lawn or garden areas.”
Some areas like Missoula have even initiated programs encouraging rainwater harvesting. However, the DNRC asks (see here) that anyone proposing rainwater harvest of more than 0.1-acre-feet contact them before moving forward.
Sewage and Waste Removal
Montana’s sewage regulations are surprisingly modern and relaxed. The law specifically mentions newer systems like composting toilets and “experimental systems.”
Because the law is detailed, you shouldn’t have too much trouble getting a permit for your off-grid waste disposal system. The biggest hurdle you might encounter is the law requiring all homes with running water to install septic or connect to the municipal sewage system.
You can read the details of Montana’s on-site sewage laws in Circular DEQ 4.
Compost Toilet Laws in Montana
Composting toilets are legal in Montana, even as your only sewage disposal method. However, you’ll also need a septic tank if your home has running water. There are also other regulations, such as that the toilet must:
- Meet NSF Standard 41
- Separate liquids from solids
- Have continuous forced ventilation to the outside
- Produce a stable humus material with less than 200 most probable number (MPN) per gram of fecal coliform
There are also regulations about removing and disposing of composted waste, though this generally won’t prohibit you from composting “humanure” in a backyard compost heap. Wastewater must be disposed of in a septic tank or absorption field.
Outhouses Laws in Montana
Outhouses (called pit privies) are legal in Montana. However, unlined pit privies are only legal for structures with no running water or piped water supply. If your home does have running water, you’ll need to use a lined pit privy (vault toilet) and have it pumped out, as well as have septic for your home’s wastewater.
There are some rules about how pit privies must be built, but they are generally very relaxed compared to other state laws.
Graywater recycling is legal in Montana but usually requires a permit. The water must ultimately be disposed of by an approved sewage system (such as using graywater to flush a toilet).
Graywater can be used to irrigate plants if those plants aren’t for human consumption and the water doesn’t contain sewage or hazardous chemicals. You can read the details of the law here.
Do you live off-grid in Montana? Let us know about your experiences in the comments section below.