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Washington State Off-Grid Laws: An In-Depth Guide


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Last Updated: February 15, 2021

With its abundance of natural resources like forests, streams and biodiversity, Washington is a great state for off-grid living.  There are even some established off-grid communities thriving in Washington.

However, the legalities of living off-grid in Washington can be complex, expensive and downright annoying.


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Is Living Off-Grid Legal in Washington State?

Living off-grid in Washington State is legal. However, along with Oregon, the state has some very strict land-use laws designed to protect the environment.

While these laws generally don’t make it illegal to live off-grid, they do put severe limits on what you can do on your property. Whether it’s a compost toilet or a new shed on your property, you’ll need a permit for virtually everything.

Best Areas for Going Off-Grid in Washington State

In general, the Western part of Washington State is much stricter in regards to off-grid laws.  King County is by far the worst in terms of regulations.  Vancouver County is also very strict.

As one homesteader said in a forum,

Seems like you can’t even fart without a permit.

By contrast, the land east of the Cascades in Washington is less strict. There are also fewer “city folks” living in these areas (the land around Seattle has a lot of weekend homes for city dwellers) so you are more likely to have like-minded neighbors who are also living the off-grid or homestead dream.

Washington State Land Use Laws

In 1990, Washington State passed the Growth Management Act (GMA).  The law requires all counties with a certain population size and growth to create development plans and laws.  The goal of these laws is to prevent sprawl and preserve the state’s natural resources.

As a result, most land in Washington State has strict zoning laws.  These laws cover things like how residents can use land and utility requirements.

You can find a map of which Washington State counties plan under the GMA here.

Critical Areas and Natural Resource Lands

Small counties with little growth aren’t required to create plans under the GMA.  However, they are still required to identify natural resources and critical areas (such as wetlands, animal habitats, etc.).  These counties are then required to create laws aimed at protecting the lands.  If you dream of moving into the wilderness of Washington State to live off-grid, it might be impossible due to these conservation laws.

For example, the Critical Areas Ordinance in King County prohibits farmers from clearing land: 50-65% of land which wasn’t previously cleared must be left in natural vegetation.  Likewise, there are restrictions on things like whether you can put up new outbuildings on your own property.

It is still possible to build on Critical Lands in Washington; the process will just be more difficult.  There is a good guide here.

Zoning Laws

Almost all Washington State land has zoning laws.  Like with other states, land zoned as Rural or Agriculture usually have fewer restrictions in regards to off-grid living.

There are still some areas in Washington State without zoning.  For example, Wahkiakum County does not have zoning (other than in Cathlamet town).  No zoning doesn’t mean you can just do whatever you want on your property though.   Even in rural Wahkiakum County, you’ll still need permits for things like excavation or building a barn.

You can find a list of Washington Counties and their codes here.

Also Read: What Is a Homestead Declaration?

Qualifying As a Farm in Washington State

Land in Washington State is very expensive, so property taxes can be extraordinarily high.  However, under theWashington Open Space Taxation Act (Ch. 84.34 RCW, qualifying farmers have their land taxed on its current use.  Open spaces and timberlands are also taxed at their use value.

To qualify as a farm in Washington State:

  • Properties 20 acres or more: The land is primarily devoted to farming purposes or enrolled in the Federal Conservation Reserve program
  • Properties of 5 to 20 acres: Gross income of at least $200 per acre or $1,500 per year for three of the five previous calendar years from date of application.

You’ll need to apply for an assessment, usually with the County Assessor. See this agricultural tax guide for more. Washington State also has many other tax exemptions for farmers, which you can read about here.

Off-Grid Electricity in Washington State

Washington is one of the best states for encouraging renewable energy such as solar.  There are many incentives including the Renewable Energy System Incentive Program. Read more about the incentives here.

There are no laws which prohibit homeowners from disconnecting from the electric grid. You are free to use renewables as your only source of electricity.

Note, however, that there might be some rules against not having any electricity in your home at all.  For example, some labor and childcare facility laws prohibit using candles because of fire hazards.

If you aren’t using your home as a business, then these laws probably don’t apply.  As always, check with your county about the laws first.

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Off-Grid Water

In Washington State, the public owns the water rights.  You are required to get a water right permit to use water, even on your own property.  In times of shortage, senior water right holders have priority.  All permits are regulated by the The State Department of Ecology (DOE).  Depending on how much water you need to use, the permit can be very expensive.  See the fees here.

Anyone caught using water illegally in Washington State is subject to a fine of up to $5,000 per day.  You also risk getting sued by your neighbors for depriving them of their water.

Ground Water (Wells)

You are required to get a water right permit for well water. This is in addition to any drilling permits required by the county.   To get a permit, you must prove that water is available, it will be used beneficially, and will not impair another existing use.  This last one can be complicated, especially near fisheries and wetlands.

However, there are exceptions (known as the groundwater permit exemption) for:

  • Domestic uses of up to 5,000 gallons per day
  • Industrial uses of up to 5,000 gallons per day
  • Irrigation of a lawn or garden, a half-acre or less in size
  • Stockwater

Surface Water

You need a water right permit for using any surface water, including water from streams, rivers, or lakes on your property.  You will also need a permit if you want to build any sort of water storage reservoirs (such as a pond).  The amount of water in the reservoir counts towards your total allotted water usage laid out in the permit.

It’s worth noting that water rights can drastically increase property value.  If you don’t qualify as a farm (and thus are taxed as use value), then your property taxes will also increase.

Rainwater

You do not need a permit for rainwater harvesting in Washington State so long as the rain is caught on an existing structure with another use.  So, you could catch rainwater from your home and barn.  However, you couldn’t build a surface specifically for catching rainwater without getting a permit.

Washington State actively encourages residents to catch rainwater and has a lot of good resources on the Department of Ecology website.  Some areas, such as Seattle, offer incentives for people who install rainwater barrels.

Many counties – though not all — do allow you to use rainwater for drinking water, so you theoretically could use rainwater harvesting as your off-grid home’s sole source of water (which might be a viable solution if you can’t get a water right permit).  When used for drinking, rainwater is subject to the same treatment rules as surface water.  More on that here.

Graywater Recycling

Graywater recycling is legal in Washington State.  You don’t need a permit for very small systems.  The water can legally be used for irrigation, but only with below-ground methods such as drip irrigation or drainfields designed in a certain way.

You can read the details of the regulations here.

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Sewage and Waste Removal

Washington State have very strict laws about sewage removal.  The law even states that homes must connect to public sewer lines if one is located within 200 feet of their property (though there are exceptions).

When a sewer line isn’t available, then you will be required to have a septic tank.  Some Washington counties do have language which might allow for “approved alternative systems”.   However, there is no list of what these approved alternatives are.  It is up to the local health officer to decide whether your off-grid system is a risk or not.

This PDF guide by the Washington State Department of Health goes over approved water-saving sewage systems, including outhouses, incinerating toilets, compost toilets, vault toilets and graywater systems.

Outhouses/Latrines

Outhouses are called “pit toilets” and, under Washington State law, are defined as:

An on-site sewage dispersal unit consisting of a structure overlying an excavation not exceeding five feet in depth in which human excrement (human feces and urine) is directly deposited for permanent placement in the ground.

In many places in Washington State, outhouses are illegal.  Some rural areas still allow outhouses but only on properties which are not permanently occupied (like campgrounds).  Even if an outhouse is legal in your county or you get approval for one, it doesn’t mean you still won’t be required to have a septic system.

Compost Toilets

Compost toilets are legal in Washington State.  You’ll need to get a permit from the local health department before installing one.  Only compost toilets on the DOH List of Registered On-Site Treatment and Distribution Products are allowed.

Even though compost toilets are legal, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s legal to only use a compost toilet.  You will almost certainly also be required to have a septic system.  However, Washington is a very progressive state.  Already there is a huge interest in compost toilets so I wouldn’t be surprised if counties started to gradually update their on-site sewage laws to allow compost toilets instead of septic.

Garbage Removal

If you live somewhere in Washington with commercial garbage services, you will almost always be legally required to pay for these services.

For example, Kent City code requires residents to pay for garbage collection even if they want to self-haul their own trash.  If you don’t want to be stuck paying for trash services, you’ll need to find property with no service.

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Other Off-Grid Laws in Washington State

RVs and Tiny Homes

Living in an RV, mobile home or tiny home in Washington State is legal.  Compared to other states, Washington actually has some progressive laws designed to protect people who choose to live in these homes.

Washington State law defines RVs, mobile homes and tiny homes on wheels as “manufactured homes.” Under  laws SB 6593 and EHB 1227, cities and counties are required to treat them the same as other types of homes: they cannot be banned in zoning laws.

However, the law doesn’t prevent cities and counties from creating restrictions.  For example, you may only be able to live in a mobile home if it is:

  • Set on a permanent foundation
  • Comply with local design standards
  • Up to the state’s energy code
  • Connected to sewage system
  • Equipped with at least one toilet and shower

As with all legalities of living off-grid, you’ll have to check with your local county about the rules.

Right to Farm Laws

Washington State has very strong Right to Farm laws.  These laws essentially state that landowners in developing areas cannot be subject to nuisance complaints due to their farming or forestry activities.  Read more here

Straw Bale Homes

As of 2015, straw bale is an approved construction material in the International Residential Code (IRC).  Washington has adopted this appendix, meaning that straw bale homes are legal in the state.

Raw Milk

It is legal to sell raw milk in Washington State, including for human consumption.  You will need a license to sell raw milk.  More on the laws here.

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