Architecturally, the dwellings run the gamut — railroad cars, travel trailers, plywood shacks, doublewides and two-story ranch-style homes.
Here in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, residents are beyond the reach of power lines and piped water. A few have solar panels or small wind turbines. For others, like a shanty built by Liz Owens, 57, the cost of renewable power sources and drilling a water well is prohibitive. Generators and plastic water tanks are common yard features.
The local County is concerned about the proliferation of informal development. The area consists of nearly 50,000 acre and half-acre lots platted decades ago by Amrep Southwest.
Lots have been selling for less than $5,000 this year, said Tracy Venturi, a Realtor familiar with the area. “Some buyers are drawn by low land prices, some just want to live off the grid,” she said.
Lack of running water prompted some Rio Rancho Estates residents to find innovative ways to fill their tanks. Paul Bearce, battalion chief of the Rio Rancho Fire Rescue Department, said the city had to change fittings on some fire hydrants to prevent them from being used as a water source.
Hauling water is a big part of Owens’ lifestyle. On days off from her 32-hour-a-week call center job, she crams plastic jugs into her Ford Focus and drives into Rio Rancho for a water and battery run. A friend lets her fill the jugs and charge a couple of batteries; the generator she had is broken.
Using a five-gallon solar shower for bathing, Owens said, she can make 50 gallons last a week. If the batteries are new, a charge will last 12 hours.
“I love it out here,” she said. “Nobody bothers me. Nobody minds my dogs.”
Her electricity comes from a couple of boat batteries, water from a collection of onegallon plastic jugs, and her home is a travel trailer covered in frayed blue tarpaulins.
Her face lit up as she talked about the unimpeded mountain views, the sunsets and the wild birds. A couple of dozen quail and a few blue jays regularly stop by for the tidbits she throws out for them. Animal visitors also include coyotes, rabbits, stray cattle and rattlesnakes.
She has encountered up to 40 rattlers over a summer season. Once, she found four lurking together in the plywood shed she built onto her trailer. Another time, a bull snake dropped from the shed ceiling, nearly landing on her.
“It scared the crap out of me,” Owens said.
The snakes prompted her to buy a shotgun. Guns are common on the sparsely inhabited mesa, Owens said. She frequently hears shots during the night and the occasional bullet whizzing past her trailer.
Minimum dwelling standards the county is trying to enforce in Rio Rancho Estates require the equivalent of a doublewide trailer with two-car garage. Owens received a notice this summer informing her that she had to clean accumulated trash from her lot and upgrade her dwelling. Owens removed the trash but said she can’t afford a bigger trailer.
Owens said she recently received a letter from the county giving her a deadline to upgrade or face a $300 fine.
“I just can’t get my head wrapped around this. I can’t decide what to do,” Owens said.
Sandoval County Attorney David Mathews said the county has about 40 cases similar to Owens but has not levied any fines and is prepared to work with the people involved.
“We are not in the business of evicting people,” Mathews said.