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!


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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… Read more »


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… Read more »


We live in rural Washington County. I grew up here (20 miles from where we live now), and moved away for 24 years, before returning a few years ago, buying 30 acres, and building. I spent months trying to find out about code/code enforcement in the county, and came across the same online quote you did. I finally said “Hell with it,” and got to work. We built a traditional timber frame with light clay slip/straw infill and lime plaster. We’ve been using a bucket composting toilet system as well, although I’m in the process of building a more convenient… Read more »


That’s a sweet history and journey! Thank you so much for sharing how you came back to the old stomping grounds and built your home. Reading your story was a perfect way to start my day! When Ryan wrote this blog post, it was early on in our journey off-grid (years ago). Here’s what happened to us: I directly called the Washington County planners, and had a great conversation with two of them. They assured us that living off-grid with solar panels, rainwater harvesting, composting toilet, and leasing land for our tiny house were all OK. (If we connected to… Read more »


Just ran across this post and it has given me some relief…maybe.My wife and I started purchase on our land in southern Madison county 5 and a half years ago and will have it paid off in 4 and a half more. My wife and I are retired and on fixed incomes and this is where we were looking to retire to in the next couple of years. We were recently told that we had to move from our home in Springdale because our landlord is moving their son into the home and gave us 6 weeks to move. I… Read more »


Hi Dale! Thanks for reading and for sharing your journey to Madison County. I’m familiar with most of what you talked about in your comment, but I wasn’t sure exactly what feedback you needed to hear. I think the most important thing I can say is that every location is different and everyone’s needs and goals for life will also be different. For us it’s just a process of figuring out the laws, finding a space where the laws and our goals/needs align, moving there, and then following all the laws (zoning, codes, electric, plumbing, insurance, assessor/taxes etc). You may… Read more »


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