Wind River Dweller Interview- Johnston, Virginia

Wind River Dweller Interview – Living Tiny in Rural Virginia

We recently sat down (virtually) with one of our clients to chat about her and her husband’s decision to build a tiny home and the journey—good and bad—to get there. Wind River built Alex and Jake’s tiny house, the Ovid, in 2020. (The Ovid was the first concept for what is now our Toccoa model.) Their home sits on a beautiful piece of land in rural Virginia where they can relax and get closer to nature. But it was no easy road to get there. Below, Alex talks about the challenges, frustrations, and triumphs they encountered along the way. She offers important insight into zoning and permitting, electric, and water, as well as other general advice about going tiny.

Was it all worth it? Yes, “this is an investment I want to make,” she said, and “now we have a really unique asset to enjoy and share with others.”

“We have a really unique asset to enjoy and share with others.”

 
Johnston Interview, Virginia

Q:

Tell us about your backstory and your motivations for going tiny.

A:

I grew up in Florida, moved to Virginia, and then farther north to Detroit, but I’ve never been a one-city person because most of my work happens on the road. The idea of having a home that’s portable is really appealing. Even though we’ve settled down at the moment, we’re not bound to this location.

Q:

What part of the tiny home lifestyle appeals to you the most?

A:

The idea that you don’t really need much. I’ve been traveling for work for 5-6 years now and I’m used to living out of a suitcase, so I don’t really have a lot. It’s nice to be able to spend your time and resources on “stuff” other than stuff. We can get outside, travel and have experiences instead of collecting stuff—I’ve always had that minimalist mindset. Tiny living is a good fit with that. Being able to get away from distractions allows me to do my best thinking and be creative.

Q:

What has been the most challenging part of your tiny home journey so far?

A:

I wish the list was shorter (laughs). Probably dealing with county land use and zoning policy. I totally underestimated how complicated it would be and I thought I’d have a good handle on it, given that I have a background in urban planning and land use. And it’s a good thing I did, having to navigate all of these hurdles.

Q:

Tell us about purchasing your land.

A:

Initially, when we went on a search for real estate we looked at doing a land lease. However, there were not a lot of people open to it. Even the folks that were looking to lease a part of their land were not necessarily comfortable with a tiny home. So we eventually landed on just buying a piece of land. Around here it’s really not that expensive so we were able to get about 10 acres with a monthly payment that is manageable, especially considering that we’re able to avoid a mortgage payment. One of the things we were looking for was something that was zoned agricultural because the land use possibilities are pretty broad—you can put a mobile home on it, you can put cows on it, you can do a barn, etc. We found this great piece of land that’s long and skinny, so kind of an odd piece that had been on the market for a couple years. We put in an offer knowing it had already been perked and would produce water if we drilled a well here. It was zoned ag so we could put the tiny house on it, or so we thought.

Johnston Interview, Virginia

Q:

There’s that scary word ‘zoning.’ Let’s get into that. When acquiring the permits to park your tiny home on your land, what government offices did you speak with?

A:

First we had to figure out how to get power out to the property. Solar was expensive and it’s not as reliable as having a hard line in the ground, and then you have to consider the maintenance cost as well. I wanted to go with an electric co-op so we would never have to worry about power, especially if we were having guests. We called the electric company and long story short, they said, “Well, because this is on wheels, you have to pay for the line installation by the foot.” That added a five-digit expense to our project that we were not expecting.

At the same time, we were also coordinating with the local planning commission for our county. We were saying, “Hey, we want to use this for short term rental. We also want to live here. We also need to hook it up to power.” For the county planning commission, it fell right between the cracks of their zoning code. For it to be considered a dwelling according to HUD (Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development) it has to be 330 square feet or larger—we’re at 300 square feet. To get electricity out to the property, it had to meet the definition of a dwelling. So we asked the planning commission for a determination so that our tiny home would meet the definition of a dwelling within the zoning code. Their initial response to permit electric power (at no charge from the utility company) was that the tiny house had to be on a foundation. So then I started exploring all the definitions of a “foundation”: Is it concrete? Is it piers? Is it a tie down? Well, they would entertain a number of options, but if we were to put it on a “foundation,” it still would not meet the 330 sq ft dwelling requirement. For me, it was a juggling act between sifting through federal policy, reading the zoning code for our county, talking with the planning commission, talking with the electric company, and then eventually talking with the health department, too.

Q:

So what kind of permit did you eventually receive? Is it the type of permit that most tiny home dwellers should pursue for land zoned as agricultural?

A:

We got a special use permit. Yes, I think this is the correct avenue to pursue for a tiny home owner looking to park their tiny home on land zoned for farming and agriculture. Special use permits, which are sometimes also called conditional use permits, are available in every city and county in the US. Tiny home owners should start with the local planning commission. Describe what you want to do with the property—be transparent with them and tell them your plan. They will guide you in the right direction.

Whenever you apply for a special use permit there are fees. You have to provide all types of documentation which sometimes involves getting documentation from the courthouse on who owns the land, how many acres it is, getting the plat documents, etc. Then I had to go appear before the county Board of Supervisors in a public hearing. For any kind of public hearing like that, neighbors have the opportunity to speak in favor or in opposition of your plan. I had a few people come and speak in opposition because they didn’t understand what I was doing. All they saw was a posting in the paper that said somebody was trying to put an RV on the property. So, understandably for these people, all sorts of mental images came to mind. Once I was able to describe in more detail what we were doing—that it was only two of us, we have 10 acres, it’s just one house that is smaller than your garage—people came around to the idea. But it was a process that took almost eight months to get figured out.

Q:

From the beginning, if you had had a clearer picture of the pathway that you needed to take to get all the correct permitting, do you think the whole process would have taken less time? Say more like four or five months?

A:

Yeah, probably. It didn’t help that we started this process in February 2020, and then the pandemic started in March and a lot of those city offices closed down. The good thing about it was we were getting into better weather—a lot of these guys that are required to go out and survey the property really slow down in rainy seasons and in the winter. So from a weather perspective, we hit it at the right time because we ended up having to dig a trench that was a thousand feet long to lay the electric line. We also had to get a well dug and Internet. If I had known the path to get where I was going from the start, it may have taken less time. Still, things take time. You have to schedule to have your petition posted in the newspaper; then the planning commission has to meet; then the planning commission has to make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors; then you have to get scheduled on the Board of Supervisors docket. So there’s only so much you can do to control the timeline.

Wind River Dweller Interview- Johnston, Virginia

Q:

The process of going before multiple committees and also having a hearing—is that going to be the process in most counties? Or are there some that might just want to look at your site plan and setbacks?

A:

Anytime you have a conditional use permit or a special use permit, you are involving the planning commission and either a council or Board of Supervisors. The reason for that—without going too far down the rabbit hole—is that every community has a comprehensive plan, which is basically a map that shows each parcel in the entire community and what the ideal future use for that would be. The reason they have that map is so that spot zoning does not happen.

For example, let’s say that you have a residential neighborhood and a strip mall building project is proposed right in the middle of the neighborhood, then the developer makes a really good case and the planning commission agrees to it even though it is not best for the neighborhood. Well, if this zoning exception happens fifty times in the course of ten years, it really changes the landscape of your community.

Q:

How much was your permitting cost?

A:

So the permitting cost really was pretty minimal. I think it was between $250–$300 to go through the county and get all the permits we needed. The electric company is completely separate, and we had to pay them per foot. The county issues the permit and tells the electric company, “Yes this is a dwelling. You guys are good to go and pull power out there.”

Q:

You mentioned an electric co-op. Some people buy their land and want to be completely off grid. I think here locally in Chattanooga you can elect to pay a little more towards your electric bill and participate in supporting solar power. It makes me wonder if there is a way to be grid tied but be part of a co-op that is also tied to alternative energy?

A:

Yep, definitely. That’s becoming more prevalent and popular with co-ops now. And I know that our power company here has plans to go solar in the future. But for us, the upfront infrastructure cost was almost the same as it would have been to dig a trench and run a hard line, so it just made more sense to be grid tied.

Q:

Let’s talk about your water well. You previously mentioned the health department. You had to get the health department involved with digging your well?

A:

Yes, they had to supervise the well installation to sign off that the installation is safe and not polluting any nearby streams or rivers or lakes. And every city has different stormwater and grey water regulations, too. Some are mandated federally. Some are mandated on the state level. So that’s another set of threads to untangle.

Q:

Tell us about the well you had drilled. How did you find the professional to do it and how did you decide on the specifications?

A:

I started with a guy who had an excavating firm. He was going to put in a road for me and do a couple other things. He literally gave me every contact I needed for everything. He really acted like my general contractor referring me to the right people. And that’s how a lot of these projects operate—word of mouth. So that’s how I ended up with trustworthy people. I don’t know anything about digging a well, so I called the guy that was recommended to me, submitted an application, and they got out there about three weeks later, dug it, capped it, and that was it.

Q:

This whole process seems really difficult. For someone reading this article, what is the upside of going through the trouble you went through to park the tiny home on your own land?

A:

Here’s the good thing for anyone who’s thinking about this and getting nervous at this point: If you go through all this trouble, if you jump through all the hoops, you have a super unique piece of property. I hunted and hunted for something that was already set up, and there’s not a lot out there. My hope is that the value on the back end will be enough to make up for the investment and the headaches should we decide to move away from this in the future.

Wind River Dweller Interview- Johnston, Virginia

Q:

Any other advice for tiny home dwellers from a logistical or technical standpoint?

A:

Hmm, choose a trustworthy delivery company that will take really good care of your house as they’re pulling it up to whatever cliff you’re trying to hang off of.

This has probably been one of the more stressful projects I’ve taken on just because there were so many unknowns. I had the good fortune of having a background in land use policy, so I knew what all those crazy bureaucratic government words meant. If I had to give one piece of advice it would be to make friends with the city planner who gets the vision for your project. They can guide you through the rest. At the end of the day, I think they want to be helpful, but they are constrained by a lot of regulations and can sometimes be a little unimaginative if they haven’t seen something like this before. But with enough relationship equity, you can get it done.

Q:

Now that your home is in place and you’re finally settled, what is your favorite part about your tiny home?

A:

That’s a tough question! I love how absolutely high quality everything is. The people we’ve had out to see it so far, they’re just blown away. It was really cool because since it was small we got to pick the best furnishings—the best wood floors, the best cabinets, the hardware that I really wanted. It’s just the quality of everything. I also really love the color. We chose this really cool deep blue and it looks awesome sitting among the pine trees.

Q:

What are some challenges you’ve found with living in a tiny home?

A:

Changing the sheets in a loft is a little tricky. I feel like the last time I did it I got a charley horse in my neck. But I like the lofted sleeping area. I think it’s cool to have that off of the floor and up where it’s a little out of sight and out of mind until you need it. Also, when you’re inside sitting on the sofa, it feels really spacious and open because the ceilings are high. That’s not something you would typically think of going into something like an RV. But if anyone has any tips on changing the sheets, I’m all ears.

Q:

What about cooking in your tiny home? Any challenges?

A:

Not so far. Be organized and you’re good to go!

Q:

Have you been able to enjoy the outdoors more since moving into your tiny home? Hiking, bird watching…

A:

I would say informally bird watching, like, “Oh wow! There’s a red bird!” (laughs)

When we were looking for land, I really wanted something that was halfway between Lynchburg and Charlottesville. Part of the reason is because it sits on this really, really beautiful wine and brewery trail called the Virginia 151. So along this route there are incredible breweries, awesome wineries, and since you’re in the Blue Ridge Mountains, all of them have incredible scenery. There’s a ton of hiking. There’s fly fishing, which I like to do. And it’s really all right in our backyard. It’s just a great spot to be. We’re far enough up our road that you can’t see the road or any of the neighbors from our property. You really feel like you’re out in nature.

Q:

Do you feel like tiny living especially lends itself to an outdoor lifestyle?

A:

Yeah, I mean, just the number of windows we have in the house is awesome. On a nice day we’ll pop all the windows open. When you’re in a space that small, it kind of pushes you to be outside more. We’re looking into what’s the best way to build a deck that’s potentially portable. We have a firepit out back that’s fun and a great place to host people when we’re able to gather in groups again. It’s a very cool blended experience between being inside and outside. I don’t know if it’s because the house is small and there’s less to do inside or the fact that it naturally blends more seamlessly with the outside.

Johnston Interview, Virginia

Q:

What are some questions your friends ask you about your tiny home lifestyle? Do people look at you funny or do they brighten up when you talk about it?

A:

Most people go, “It’s a what now?” or “How big is it?” But eventually they’re like, “Oh my God, this is so cool! I’ve seen XYZ show!” Tons of people have been like, “I want to rent this out. Let me know when it’s up and running.” So there’s a huge appeal to it. I think that’s part of the advantage to getting it now, especially if you’re going to use it as a part-time rental property, because there’s just not a lot of them out there and it really is cool.

Q:

Was there anything that surprised you during the process of going tiny?

A:

I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been to Lowe’s 475 times. I know so much more about how electricity runs from the network to your individual house. I understand the difference between grey water and black water and why that matters. Even really simple things. Jake and I have both just learned a ton during this process—we have a much better vocabulary and understanding of how everything works. It’s been a really good learning experience. When I’m able to step away from some of the stress and anxiety of the process, I realize, wow, I know so much more about the process than I did before.

Q:

What has been the most rewarding part of this entire journey for you?

A:

Just the fact that we’ve been able to do this—it’s super high quality, it’s on an awesome piece of land, we’ve been able to navigate the process—I just feel super proud of Jake and my ability to work together to get all this done. And also, now we have a really unique asset that people are going to be able to enjoy. It just feels really good to get to offer this out to friends and family and guests who want to experience what we see in it.

Johnston Interview, Virginia
Johnston Interview, Virginia
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5 models, 100's of configurations. Your perfect tiny home awaits.

5 models, 100's of configurations. Your perfect tiny home awaits.