Robin Speronis of Cape Coral, Florida, has been living “off the grid” for two years. She collects rainwater rather than using the city water service, uses solar energy for her power needs, cooks on a propane stove, and her only use of the city infrastructure has been to make use of the Cape Coral waste-water system to dispose of her sewage. In a day and age when homeowners are being encouraged with government incentives to use more and more alternative energy solutions such as solar power and to live sustainably by conserving resources, such a story sounds inspiring, showing that one need not live in the mountains to live “off the grid.” Speronis has shown that it can be done even in the midst of a city. However Cape Coral takes an exception to Speronis’ action, deeming it an illegal lifestyle. Without any previous warning or hearing, the Florida woman has been ordered by the city to return to living “on the grid”.
Cape Coral’s insistence comes from two areas, it seems. One is understandable from a fiscal standpoint, in that Speronis has been making use of the city water treatment system for over a year without paying for the service. The other concern, a matter of code violations and public safety, stands on less certain grounds and is open to interpretation.
As stated by the U.S.’s International Property and Maintenance Code, human habitations are considered unsafe if they do not have access to running water and electricity. Speronis however uses rainwater storage for a water source and has solar panels for electricity. There seems to be no clear consensus as to whether the term ‘running’ water applies in this situation, since water can be piped in from rainwater storage tanks and run via a water pressure system.
The Special Magistrate of Cape Coral, Harold Eskin, has taken the stance that according to city code, Speronis can live without using city power, though her alternative source of power must be approved by the city; however her lack of running water has forced him to rule that she must hook up to the city water system by the end of March. Due to her use of the wastewater treatment lines to dispose of her waste without paying the city for the service, a practice Speronis has said she has no intention of changing, Eskin has ruled that Speronis’ sewage line be capped so that she can no longer use her toilet. In order to remain living in her home, she must prove that she has an alternative means to dispose of her waste in a sanitary manner. Eskin acknowledges that though he can order Speronis to hook up to the city’s water supply, he cannot require her to use it.
This action came about after two years of Speronis living off the grid because, having deemed her experiment a success, Speronis shared her experience with a local TV outlet. The day after the dissemination of her story last November, a code enforcement officer for the city of Cape Coral served a notice of eviction on Speronis for living without utilities. There was no previous warning that she was in violation of municipal code, that she needed to hook up to the city water supply or that she needed to cease using the wastewater treatment system without paying for it, and there was no hearing before the decision to serve the eviction notice.
Speronis’ lawyer, Todd Allen of Naples who has taken on her case pro-bono, says that the two codes cited in the case, the federal code and the city ordinances, do not even agree. He further states that neither code defines “a private water system,” but that if one code accepts such a system and the other does not, then one of those codes is incorrect to allow it. Alternatively, if one code allows a private water system, the other should not be able to “negate the ability to have one.”
Speronis has another angle on the tack taken by the city, pointing out that it goes against common sense to charge someone for the use of a water system they have no intention of using. At a time when Americans are being encouraged to employ alternative, ecologically friendly means to supplement their power usage, neighbors of Speronis have opined that it is odd to encourage such actions only to a point, but not to the point of full self-sufficiency.
Eskin acknowledged the conundrum while hearing the case, stating that code requirements are not always reasonable, and that they do not always change as quickly as society and technology do. The comment indicates that the code might be outdated, though Eskin ruled he must enforce it despite.
Due to the manner in which the city handled the situation, Speronis’ story has quickly garnered national attention, leaning to significant comment by citizens from as far away as California, where people residing off the grid in Antelope Valley were evicted from their homes in 2011 and 2012 due to code violations, or had structures destroyed on their property by “Nuisance Abatement Teams” funded by Los Angeles county. Without homes, a few of the residents had to move away from the area and to return to ‘on the grid’ living. A former Antelope Valley resident has stated concern that the county codes may have been “tightened up” in order to make the actions of the Nuisance Abatement Teams legal.
“Codes like this were written to protect people who might live in lightless cabins without clean drinking water in some poor or underserved area of the country,” opines a former California resident who requests her name be omitted. Now living in Washington State where she hopes to be able to live a more eco-conscious lifestyle, she goes on to say, “These laws are being perverted now to force people to remain dependent on the infrastructure built to serve them. Enforcing them in this way harms people who are simply trying to live sustainably.”
Connie Baron, speaking for the city of Cape Coral in the hearing, states that Speronis has indicated she would continue to use the city’s wastewater system without paying for it, leaving the city with no choice but to cap her sewage line. Because a debt already exists for that usage, the city has put a lien on Speronis’ home. On the other hand, WFTX news serving the area has quoted the city as saying that municipalities actually do not have the power to evict their citizens. Though the notice placed on Speronis’ home by the code enforcement official says the habitation cannot be entered or occupied but must remain vacant, the city clarified that these officials only posted the notice because they wanted access to her home in order to provide Speronis with suggestions on how she could live off the grid safely.
According to the Cape Coral Daily Breeze, Speronis has had past run-ins with law enforcement, pleading no-contest to larceny in 2011 and having her real estate license revoked in 2012 for failing to pay back a deposit on a failed condo sale. These facts have brought on alternate views from citizens across the country from Cape Coral. “The simple fact of the matter is,” states law enforcement trainee Kay Ann of Washington, “this woman has defaulted on a debt to the city, and has refused to pay the debt. She used the infrastructure without paying for it, and now her home has liens on it. If they want to evict her, they can.”
The order has been made that the Florida widow live on the grid by hooking up to the city water supply from March 28 forward, whether she chooses to use the system or no. Her attorney is likely to file a stay during her upcoming appeal.
Considering her refusal to use the city’s water supply for her needs, Speronis’ continued use of her residence in Cape Coral now depends on whether or not she can prove able to dispose of her waste in a sanitary manner to the city’s satisfaction without the use of the Cape Coral sewage system. Speronis says she is able to do so, by disposing of her waste as dog owners do for their animals, and with the use of an alternative toilet, and the use of gray-water in her gardens. Alternative toilets such as the composting toilet do exist, though the city of Cape Coral may not see such a structure as sufficient for sanitation or safe for a municipal environment.
With the final verdict up in the air, Speronis’ story has ignited controversy between sustainability activists and those whose sympathies lie with a system that has been cheated of revenue. Whether or not the Florida woman will choose to live on the grid as ordered has become a matter of interest to the entire country.
By Kat Turner