Arkansas Building Code Peek-a-Boo

When I open a conversation with someone about building codes in the northwest Arkansas region, it is highly likely I’ll hear the two following statements:

  1. “You should build in Madison or Newton county.  They have almost no building regulations.”
  2. “Don’t build in Washington or Benton county.  You’ll never get around the codes.”

When nudged for details, however, almost every person responds with “that’s just what I’ve heard.”   The story seems so simple, so black and white, that we have almost bowed to the undefined authorities and accepted that, if we want to achieve our dreams while still maintaining a connection to Fayetteville, we’ll have to find a way to do some hardcore commuting.

However, it’s hard for me to accept something without knowing why; there are so many unclear details!  This link claims, in bold, that Washington County does not issue building permits.  Does this mean that a couple could comfortably be septic-system free, raise animals, dig cisterns, protect habitat, and more as an owner of land in unincorporated Washington County?

I eventually got in touch with the Washington County Senior planner, who would probably have the ability to easily answer all of these questions.  I’m hoping she’s super busy, though, because she has yet to respond to our, shall we say, unorthodox questions (it has been two weeks to the day).  Is it weird to ask if a county allows for composting toilets?  In ten or fifteen years’ time, probably not, but perhaps now it still raises an eyebrow or two.

All I know so far is, Washington County regulates splitting of land, wind turbines, and agricultural land use.  I don’t know how it does these things, but none of these should interfere with our dreams… as long as we’re outside of any particular city’s limits.  If we actually wanted to build in Fayetteville, there is a veritable mountain of code to adhere to.  Friends assure me that 60% or 70% of it would not apply to us, but the same friends also have spent hundreds of hours pouring over thick texts laden with city requirements.  I’m not sure devoting that kind of time can be in my immediate future.

If no similar documents or requirements exist for unincorporated Washington County, and if the Fayetteville area doesn’t go all densely metropolitan (which usually leads to defiling huge amounts of natural resources for miles around the city space), we might do well to settle as close as possible.

No matter where we settle, a few questions remain:  What exactly does “no building permits” mean?  Does this just apply to our actual dwelling, and have nothing to do with how we make use of our land?  Also, what if we’re chillin’ a few miles outside of Fayetteville city limits, and then they swoop in and want to annex our lands?  Will we have some kind of weird, paper-heavy, bureaucratic fight on our hands?  Would we be pressured to adhere to the codes of the “conquerors?”  How does this stuff work?

And that’s where my understanding currently stands.  Any ideas?

The journey continues!


  • Derek

    I’ve heard all the same things… I’m not sure from whence they originate…I do know that one of the Earthship websites I looked at had some blurb about “better” (i.e. non-regulated) counties throughout the US in which to build.

    Here’s what I could suggest – if you’re paying cash and building on land you own, I don’t think you should worry too much about anything. If you put in a blackwater system that uses solar decomposition, tell everyone you have a septic tank if they ask… and don’t worry about it. The only place you’d have a problem is if you wanted municipal water… which I’m sure you don’t given any other options!! Where you run into trouble is when you start asking for gov’t services… if you are truly independent then you have no worries.

    Otherwise, us “country folk” tend to live and let live, if your place is hidden from view, and you don’t give anyone a reason to come nosing around – just say “It’s a weekend place, we spend as much time as possible here”. So… think from the opposing point of view – who would oppose your life choices and why? Figure that out, neutralize those concerns, and you’ll have no trouble living in harmony with society (which ultimately doesn’t matter) as well as nature (which ultimately does) IMHO!

    By the way, though I’ve decided I’m not up to building an earthship, we are just about free and clear on our little piece of land in Cedarville – now to make it sustainable!!!!

    • rpbancroft

      Sweet, thanks for the advice, Derek! Sorry about the late reply; been too far removed from the computer for a few days now.

      That’s a really eye-opening perspective, and it feels so right. It really comes down to the people and what they think of you and what you do. It makes so much sense – if you’re not using any government services or in any way connecting to their systems, and you’re on your land, why would they even make the effort? I’d love to hear more about your experience with this. It seems that you have either lived or deeply experienced the “country life,” and we could gain invaluable insight from that.

      About your land, that’s awesome to hear! I’ll be excited to see what you all come up with. If not an earthship, are you considering an alternative building design? Strawbale perhaps? And what about your power, water, and septic strategies?

      Hope to talk to ya soon!