Off the Grid in a Florida Suburb, Fighting Municipal Code

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from Bloomberg Businessweek,

In Cape Coral, Fla., a city of snowbird retirees and strip malls off the Caloosahatchee River, there’s a part of town that never quite recovered from the real estate bust. Foreclosure notices spill from the mailboxes of homes lining the city’s shallow canals and gather in trash drifts by the front doors. Weeds run riot in the yards of properties built for no money down in the flush days and then abandoned when they went underwater.

Even amid the eerie detritus, the small ranch-style duplex that Robin Speronis moved into in January 2013 is a little unusual. For one thing, Speronis, an energetic 54-year-old widow with cropped blonde hair and stark blue eyes, never had the city turn on the power or water. She set two 55-gallon plastic cisterns on either side of the entranceway and attached gutter downspouts to collect rainwater. She perched a small solar charger on a windowsill with wires snaking inside to a battery that in turn powers a few lights and a laptop. Wireless Internet is siphoned from a nearby Tire Kingdom. Inside, a propane lantern hangs from an unused light fixture in the dining area. Speronis is living off the grid—no power from the city, rainwater her only source for bathing, drinking, and sewage—in the middle of her tumbledown subdivision. It has caused a national furor.

Speronis first took an interest in detaching from the system during the years she spent caring for her husband, Zenny, who suffered from a neurodegenerative disorder. As his condition worsened, she turned to homeopathic treatments and other unconventional regimens: raw foods, colloidal silver, an avoidance of refrigeration and air conditioning, a focus on the promotion of regular bowel movements. It was a struggle to explain to the people around her, but she provided for Zenny without doctors, pharmaceuticals, or any medical assistance until his death at 84 in 2010. She self-published a book about “freeing” him from the health-care system and “home deathing him naturally.”

Speronis had worked as a real estate agent and a massage therapist, but most of her savings went to making her husband comfortable in his last days.

in April 2012, Speronis underwent a radical ascetic conversion. She surveyed what remained of her things and asked, “Do I really need this? Is this of value to me?” She got rid of everything, from her BMW convertible to her wedding album, and attempted to establish a fully self-reliant existence. In June of that year, she bought an RV and moved onto a rented property in a nearby wooded area. She stayed for seven months, teaching herself to live without most modern conveniences. “I had never even gone camping,” she says now, “but nothing was hard. Every time I did something it was easier than I thought it was going to be. I thought, ‘I can do this. I can do this myself.’

Speronis subsisted primarily on a year’s supply of dried and canned food she’d bought while she had the RV. She drank and bathed in rainwater, filling a four-gallon, solar-heated camp shower. Her only connection to city services was the sewer: She flushed waste down the toilet, again with rainwater. “I can go weeks or a month without spending a penny,” she says.

In true American fashion, Speronis began writing about her experiences as a pioneer of the subdivision. She started a blog called Off the Grid Living in Southwest Florida—One Woman’s Story.

“The desire to ‘get off the grid’ is anchored deep in the American psyche,” says Nick Rosen, author of Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America. From Daniel Boone’s sturdy self-reliance on the Western frontier to Henry David Thoreau’s individualist morality at Walden Pond, to be alone and disconnected is to be an idealized version of an American.

Estimates of the national off-the-grid population are vague, hovering between 180,000 and 250,000, almost entirely in rural settings where public utilities—and government oversight—are in short supply. Climate-change concerns spur many, as does an interest in a simpler, low-tech lifestyle. Disaster preppers and militiamen see it as a hedge against impending social collapse.

Not everyone who wants to go off the grid can.

The day after a Fox segment on Speronis aired, an officer from the Cape Coral code compliance division knocked on her door, rousing her two dogs, Suzie, a chihuahua, and Faith, a mixed breed. Speronis didn’t answer. The officer, taking note of the water barrels and severed power lines, stuck a placard on the door declaring the property unfit for human habitation. “Any person entering this property without official authorization,” it read, “is subject to removal and/or arrest.”

Cape Coral argued that it had nothing against Speronis going off grid, only with how she’d done so. “There are an awful lot of alternatives out there that meet code,” says Frank Cassidy, the city’s code compliance division manager. “The problem is that she is not using those methods.” He ticked off a litany of municipal resources for cisterns, composting toilets, retrofit grants, equipment, housing assistance, and programs to sell excess solar power to the grid.

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