Our house, that was where we used to sleep

Most of the homes on the dead-end West Asheville street are evenly spaced, single-family residences with front lawns, driveways and the occasional picket fence. But one house stands in stark contrast, with a massive array of solar panels sprouting in the front yard and terraced gardens all around. The inhabitants consider this tucked-away sliver of green an “urban homestead,” and indeed, until recently more than half a dozen people called it home.

Cobbled together: Steve Arpin stands in front of a cob structure on his property. One of his housemates used to live in the earthen outbuilding, but city building inspectors put a stop to that several months ago. photos by Rebecca Bowe

Firmly convinced that a widespread shift in lifestyle will be needed to adapt to climate change and other future ecological challenges, property owner Steve Arpin and his housemates have been developing the space since 2000 with an eye toward increased sustainability.

But the house has drawn unwanted attention from city building inspectors in recent months. Several people who’d been living in unpermitted outbuildings were forced to move, and resident ducks were also evicted. Since then, Arpin and his housemates have been attending City Council meetings and writing letters to local officials in an attempt to reconcile their personal lifestyle choices with city and state building codes.

Grounded

With a 15-foot-high photovoltaic array, flourishing garden beds and earthen outbuildings, Arpin’s house is impossible to miss. The solar power provides hot water, heat and electricity, minimizing both utility bills and residents’ dependence on fossil fuels. There’s a cistern for capturing rainwater, a root cellar, the makings of an outdoor kitchen, and a hefty compost pile. There’s also an abundance of fruit trees and berry bushes, vegetable gardens, medicinal herbs and even shiitake mushrooms.

The underlying design concept here is permaculture, which means reusing everything, focusing on interrelationships and following nature’s lead. One of the outbuildings on the property was fashioned out of gravel, straw and the mud scooped out to create the root cellar. The supporting posts were milled from trees swept down in a hurricane. A nearby wall is made entirely of “urbanite” (recycled sidewalk slabs).

Arpin says that when he tried to talk to people years ago about how they ought to be living to weather impending crises such as oil depletion, no one knew what he was talking about. “So I just decided to show them what I meant,” he explains. “I started living this way out of response to ecological concerns. But actually, it’s really fun to live this way.”

People are happy living there, he says, and that’s the point. “When you like your life, there’s no reason to escape from reality through drugs or television or whatever,” Arpin maintains. Parents in the neighborhood often entrust him with baby-sitting, and he looks after one 4-year-old regularly. “When he’s 20, I have to be prepared to tell him what I did with what I knew,” says Arpin. “It just seems prudent to prepare for the crisis. I’m just trying to function as a caring, responsible adult by looking at the challenges and making choices about how to best address them.”

Bursting the bubble

Solar power: Seedlings in a greenhouse looking out over the terraced garden beds in the yard.

But the homestead fell on troubled times last November, when city building inspectors responded to a complaint about a rat problem in the neighborhood—probably due to the unenclosed compost heap. Arpin corrected the problem immediately, but that visit set off a chain reaction that has kept him and his housemates scrambling ever since.

A notice of violation informed them that the people living in unpermitted outbuildings couldn’t stay. Their composting toilet also violated code, said city staff. And around the same time, Animal Services notified the homesteaders that the free-ranging ducks had to go, too, because fowl in the city must be penned up at all times. (According to housemate Zev Friedman, the ducks were beneficial precisely because they were allowed to roam: Waddling around the garden, they snacked on slugs. They also provided eggs, and the kids in the neighborhood liked to come see them.)

This wasn’t the first time the homestead had run afoul of city code: Two years ago, a beehive situated at the property’s edge was still too close to the house to be legal, so away went the bees and their honey. A pair of goats were removed for similar reasons.

“From the city’s vantage point, we don’t try to determine whether what he and those folks are trying to do is a good thing or a bad thing—we just enforce the code,” says Building Safety Director Robert Griffin. “That’s just part of the job.”

Initially, the uprooted folks just relocated to the main house, but had they stayed, they would have triggered yet another violation. City staff notified Arpin that if he had more than two tenants living there, his house would be considered a boarding house by city code—an illegal use, as the property was zoned as a single-family residence. The others were given three months to move.

The state building code, however, allows up to five unrelated adults to live together. Arpin’s case brought that discrepancy to light, and city staff agreed to initiate the process of amending the city ordinance to square with state law. Meanwhile, Arpin has continued to advocate for further rule changes.

All in the family

Group living is an integral part of the experiment, Arpin maintains. “At our house, we feel that living together in larger numbers supports individual changes that are beneficial to society as a whole,” he wrote in a Feb. 23 letter to the city’s Building Safety Department. “Because our traditional communal structures have been broken up by modernized living, and because so many nuclear families are unhealthy and even abusive, creative communities such as ours provide a viable alternative for modern people to re-create supportive, human-community environments.”

The enforcement also struck Arpin as unduly selective. “No illegal drugs are allowed at our house, and yet for some reason the city seems to have taken more interest in shutting down things like raising ducks, keeping bees, humanure composting and sleeping in outbuildings than in shutting down the nearby drug houses,” he wrote.

Friedman agrees. “There are hundreds of people in the city breaking these same laws, but they chose to … enforce them on us,” he notes. “I would hope that [our] city government would exercise discretion and make decisions based on a context that allowed for a larger vision of what we want the city to be.”

The plea for flexibility found some unlikely support on City Council. “I was supportive of giving Mr. Arpin more time to raise his issues with city staff, seek possible points of compromise, and make adjustments where there did not seem to be options,” Council member Carl Mumpower noted in an e-mail to Xpress. “One hopes that staff can work with Mr. Arpin and his friends to make best use of gray areas in our ordinances. When we hit a black-and-white issue, however, fairness, consistency and [a balancing act] come into play.”

Council member Robin Cape says it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the codes are intended to protect public health and safety. At the same time, she calls Arpin’s alternative-living project a “really honorable social experiment” and says the case might present an opportunity to modify existing laws in the interest of promoting sustainability. “We all have steps to make in the right direction,” says Cape. “It’s great to have this as a dialogue and a starting place.”

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