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Can you build there? Part One: Determining Buildability in Santa Cruz County, California

For those of us not lucky enough to have a straightforward path to building our dream home or project, I would like to share some of what I have learned about the most daunting of steps: the permitting process. It’s been almost two years since I completed my undergraduate degree and first felt the panic of not knowing what I wanted to do post-graduation. At that point, I was still looking for a vocation that stirred feelings of passion in me, and it was then that my mom introduced me to Earthship Biotecture and the world of natural building.

So, with papers and finals still to complete, I voyaged into the unknown depths of the Southwest to finish my Bachelor’s Degree whilst simultaneously beginning my education in sustainable building. At that time I made an unspoken promise to my mom that I would help her build a sustainable home in a place of her choosing. It was also at that time that I first became acquainted with Permitting Hell: also known as California Building Codes. In February of this year, my parents and I took a trip to Santa Cruz, California to look at some undeveloped land. It is worth noting that in this very desirable area of California (on the coast, between Monterey and Silicon Valley), the only available land that exists only remains undeveloped because it presents building challenges. In Santa Cruz, mountains extend North along Highway 9 and the quaint towns of Felton, Ben Lomond, Brookdale, and Boulder Creek greet travelers with towering Redwoods. This area was also the heart of the original tree-hugging and women’s rights movements, and these progressive ideologies remain impressed on the community.

Earthquakes, wildfires, and landslides are only a few of the terrifying prospects homeowners face in California (not to mention pretentious people), and all of these threats have contributed to very strict building codes.

ThoughCalifornia has experienced one of its longest droughts in its recorded history (2011-2017), it is surprising that gray water systems aren’t in every new home, and natural building is still not widely accepted (aside from the phenomenal work that the California Straw Building Association—CASBA—has done in code-writing; see the Straw Bale Construction Appendix for the International Residential Code). Though underutilized in wildfire-stricken California, straw bale, superadobe, and tire buildings have all proven to be fire resistant. According to several case studies of straw bale buildings that faced the threat of wildfire compiled by CASBA: “All of these examples were within the perimeter of the wildfires, and in some instances these structures survived when all else around them burned. A combination of factors aided in their survival; all have metal or tile roofs, other fire-resistant materials and details, and most had defensible space. “

Follow this link to read more about fire resistance and straw bale:

When we know proven ways to protect ourselves and our planet, who is at fault when things go wrong from our negligence? Back in Santa Cruz, a place untouched byrecent wildfires, yetstill susceptible to many other kinds of natural disasters, land development means having enough zeroes in your bank account.

Up in the mountains, where potential buyers will find the only affordable land in the county, a builder’s first challenge is dealing with extreme slope. As I learned through my own experiences, even though there may be landings with graded platforms, in most cases, those landings were put in by men in Santa Cruz’s logging days and are not acceptable for building. Moreover, installing a septic tank in Santa Cruz County requires access to land with less than a 30 degree slope, more than a 100 foot setback from a waterway, and 10 feet from a road. Installing that tank, however, is where any land development begins, unless a sewer line can be put in, which is unlikely and costly in most cases.

A septic tank also requires a 100 foot leach field with the same slope and setback requirements, though a 50 foot leach field is almost always available for triple the cost (my estimates were ~$23,000 for a regular septic system incl. permits). Gone are the days in Santa Cruz where septic tanks could be made out of redwoods. Even if we didn’t leave California “In Contract”, what I did learn from the process is that hiring a geologist to determine a parcel’s buildability, was worth his $90/hour (I paid a total of $180). His visual inspection and research on the land was enough to discern that five acres for $150,000 in Boulder Creek would still amount to not worth it (even if it was right on the San Lorenzo river). The extra money for a septic, the limited building area, and whatever other surprise costs hiding around the corner, would take the build past our budget.

I cannot stress how important it is to do research before investing in something like land. It not only saves money, but also time and headaches. At this point, I’m slowly convincing my parents out of California and into Hawaii (which will also save us on all three points).

For now, the search goes on . . .


Help support the preservation and distribution of this incredible native music, recorded in the mind-blowing Desert View Watchtower on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in October 2017. 

Renowned Hopi Singer Clark Tenakhongva, world-class flutist Gary Strautsos, and ethnomusicologist, KXCI DJ, and our friend, Matt Nelson hope to raise $7500 in the next 5 weeks to turn their recordings and interviews with Tehnakhongva into a CD/DVD combination, scheduled for release this August.

Check out their Kickstarter page, or pre-order a CD/DVD set at to show your support or find more info! This one of those rare-gem sort of projects...

From their Kickstarter page:

Ongtupqa is the Hopi word for Grand Canyon. This project is about sharing the story of the connection between this sacred place and the Hopi people who know it as their place of emergence and the place they return to. Ongtupqa explores Hopi cultural connections to Grand Canyon through music and video, recorded on the South Rim of Grand Canyon where Hopi emerged from the Third World into the Fourth World long ago. 

Learn more or donate here!

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