There is so much to know about the complexities of tiny house legalization so having an understanding of what zoning laws are vs. what building codes require is important. In this article, Understanding Zoning and Tiny Houses, we invite Jerry McIntire, project manager for Stone’s Throw Ecovillage (an ecovillage in Wisconsin that will include tiny houses) to break it all down.
ZONING AND YOUR TINY HOUSE
I’ve been learning and thinking about zoning for years, as the project manager and soon-to-be resident of a new ecovillage in the hills of SW Wisconsin. Zoning entered into the criteria for our property search, and figured largely in our members’ decision to locate outside of the city limits. Thanks to a progressive state building code and the absence of zoning in our township, there is no minimum size for houses at Stone’s Throw Ecovillage. Tiny houses are welcome; in fact, we are a registered “parking” spot at tinyhouseparking.com
It’s an exciting time for us, just like planning to build or buy your first tiny house. That’s why I want to share what we’ve learned about zoning. The question, “Where can I park my tiny house?” is just as important as “Where will I get my building materials?” and it’s a good one to ask early on.
WHAT IS ZONING?
First off, zoning is separate from building codes. Cities, townships, and counties can all have different zoning regulations. (They can have different building codes also, but that’s a different subject and they don’t vary as widely.)
Building codes specify the minimum standards for the construction of any house, or how a house should be built. Zoning is different. Zoning covers where your tiny house can be occupied. And there are a wealth of reasons including health, safety, and financial as to why zoning controls where you can locate your tiny house.
Zoning can require minimums for emergency vehicle access (safety); sewer or septic connections, rainwater runoff control, municipal water or well water hookups (health); minimums for lot size, square footage of houses, and restrictions on how many residences can occupy a lot or given area (financial, as these largely “protect” property values). I’m not giving a comprehensive list, these are just examples of the types of regulations included in zoning.
Again, building codes cover how a house is built. Zoning covers where and how many houses can be placed on a property, and how services and utilities must be accessed.
WHERE CAN I PUT MY TINY HOUSE?
Is there hope for locating tiny houses in areas with zoning? Yes! Most occupied tiny houses are in zoned areas actually. Zoning can allow for small secondary residential spaces on a lot, known as ADUs (accessory dwelling units) or granny cottages, in-law units, secondary dwelling units, and tiny houses. Most often, local ADU regulations require a unit to be on a foundation. If this is the case, one option is to remove the wheels from the trailer once you park it in its designated area and save them for future moves.
Zoning can also allow for a single tiny house on a city lot or a piece of land. The most common challenge is zoning that specifies a minimum size (I’ve seen 450 – 1,500 square feet in various cities) for any main residence. If this is the case, as a property owner you may be able to apply for a variance that would allow for a tiny house despite it being smaller than the minimum size required. No guarantee of success though. The neighbors usually must be notified of any application for a variance, and their opinion usually has weight with the zoning board.
Two other potential locations for tiny houses: mobile home parks and campgrounds. These can easily work for short stays, but some don’t welcome long-term parking of tiny houses that are not commercially built to meet the RVIA or MHBA standards. Start asking well before you finish building and need a place to park.
My favorite option is to place a tiny house on private land. To make this more widely possible though, changes to zoning laws are needed. Variances for smaller-than-minimum homes aren’t always granted. Some cities are rethinking those minimums, especially where real estate prices are high. Boston, New York, Seattle, Portland all have new minimums for micro-apartments. The need exists. It may take some time and organizing, but changes to zoning laws are possible and beginning to happen.
Would you rather work around the obstacles? Simply start with land that has an existing house on it. This qualifies as the main dwelling. Rent that house and live in your tiny “accessory dwelling unit” if the zoning allows ADUs.
Another alternative is to ignore local zoning and live in your tiny house until someone complains or the enforcers find you. Keep in mind that action from code/zoning departments is almost always triggered by complaints. In other words, as long as no one around you complains that you are there, you can live in your tiny house directly under the noses of building officials (a few of the most popular tiny houses out there fall into this category). Personally I don’t like this option because you could be fined or suddenly forced to move. Not my idea of fun.
The ultimate in simplicity though is land without specific zoning requirements. There are still many townships and counties—mostly rural—that have no zoning laws. You can live in any size house on a foundation as long as it meets the state building codes, or even in any tiny house on wheels in some locations. In fact, some jurisdictions still don’t have building codes, which makes it even easier to build the tiny house of your dreams! One caveat, just because there are no building codes doesn’t mean you should skimp on your build. Make it safe, make it healthy, and make it as high quality as you can.
If you’re traveling through SW Wisconsin with your tiny house, look us up:
Jerry McIntire has been walking the sustainable talk for decades. One of the first contractors to focus on non-toxic building materials in Portland, Oregon, he helped start two biodiesel cooperatives and participates in natural building projects in Argentina and the U.S. He is a permaculture designer and project manager for Stone’s Throw Ecovillage, an established group with land in SW Wisconsin’s beautiful Driftless region. He carries a frisbee wherever he goes.