What would happen if you bought a ghost town?
August 6, 2020 2:58 PM   Subscribe

A real estate listing for a private island with a cottage and some outbuildings had me curious about what rules govern these things. If someone bought such a property—private island, ghost town, land that is otherwise not part of a city—could they do whatever they wanted with it?

I’m thinking about the stories here of people starting ‘pandemic pods’ and things like this to continue socializing during These Times. If money was no object (alas, for me, it is, but hypothetically) could me and 10 friends go in on the island cottage and start our own town? Could we plant gardens and install solar panels and make a whole society there? Would the owner of a ghost town, or island or something like this need building permits? Would there be any rules governing their behaviour in such a circumstance?
posted by ficbot to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You'd definitely be part of a county and state. There are unincorporated areas that have no town, use county sheriffs and state police for any law enforcement. You'd want to consider fire and emergency safety/ response. But you could incorporate as a town, make whatever rules you like. Within reason; literally. Unreasonable rules can be held unconstitutional, so No Pants Allowed Except On Your Head might not be legit. You could make zoning regs that require solar, have municipal composting, disallow light pollution, that sort of thing. Arcosanti might be an example.
posted by theora55 at 3:15 PM on August 6

You'll need to be more precise about where this "land... not part of a city" is. Unincorporated areas still are under state and federal law, as noted above. You could, I guess, go really far out and end up in some place like Sealand. Historically, refuges like this became pirate havens (like Île Sainte-Marie or Spanish Tortuga) which survived beyond the reach of authority only as long as getting there was too much bother.
posted by SPrintF at 3:16 PM on August 6

So you bought a ghost town - apparently people are out there buying up ghost towns on a not-infrequent basis.
posted by GuyZero at 3:17 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]

For what it's worth, people have bought ghost towns before.

City law can't pre-empt state law or county law. Most states and counties regulate building codes to some extent (with cities building upon those), so you wouldn't be able to build any arbitrary structure. However, enforcement of those laws will be spotty, at best, especially in the middle of nowhere, so there may be no pragmatic distinction.

Similarly, utilities create and enforce their own policies. So, if you want to hook up with regional water/electric/sanitation systems, you will likely be coerced into following their requirements. In general, this will also mean giving up an easement right to the utility companies for some amount of your land. Utility companies will generally demand a right to maintain and inspect their lines/sewers/etc indefinitely, and generally will do so with a (mandatory) easement to your property.

Finally, some restrictions on socialization are city/county-based, but most (all?) states still have state-wide restrictions on businesses and legal activities. You would not be able to bypass those in a city. However, again, enforcement is likely going be lax outside a city, so that might not matter to you.
posted by saeculorum at 3:17 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]

In my state, if you are not in an incorporated area (a town), you are subject to the laws and building codes of the county and of the state.
While you cannot do whatever you want, the restrictions tend to be fewer and enforcement more sporadic.

If you would like to incorporate (form a town) and make your own rules, there is a specific procedure in state law which includes, among other things:
A minimum of 150 people, a plan for adequate taxes sufficient to fund municipal services, an economic feasibility analysis and a petition of your intent.
You also need to have an elected council of at least 5 members and a municipal judge.

However, the codes are hierarchical, so even if you form a town, you are still subject to state code for the most part, unless specifically exempted and/or you become a home rule city.
posted by madajb at 3:19 PM on August 6 [2 favorites]

There are plenty of such 'ghost' towns in Australia, most of them former mining or logging sites. You wouldn't want to live in one, unless you wanted to deal with the kind of asbestos or heavy metals contamination that would make an environmental engineer's hair curl, but assuming you did:

- In Australia remote places like these are rarely strictly private; they're either parts of crown leases, or are owned directly by the Government, or are on Aboriginal owned or managed land, or some variation. 'Buying' one is unlikely to happen, you would enter into an arrangement with the owners, managers, and the State or Commonwealth.
- When such a place does come up for sale/lease, it's typically as a tender for an owner to run the place as an ongoing concern, and as above—you'd enter into a leasing arrangement. It is very difficult to run a profit on such places, but that's a different question.
- Many of them are in National Parks, and are subject to serious restrictions on habitation and building and development. If it's an uninhabited island, this is almost certainly the case. Others are subject to Heritage Acts of the various States, and you would be expected to conserve historical fabric and establish a Plan to maintain the place. Enforcement of these laws varies, but is real and the consequences serious.
- Imagining you bought yourself a remote block of land that wasn't subject to the restrictions above, you would still be subject to the planning law of the Council (where a municipality exists) or of the State Government (for unincorporated land). Rural councils loathe allowing residential development on non-residential land; it creates responsibilities for them, risks creating [more] remote shanty-towns beyond services, and they will enthusiastically prosecute you if you try to reside in a place in advance of planning—consider the Menzies Council's ongoing case.

The short story is there's plenty of scope to live a secluded life in a remote Australian place, especially if you have infinite money and can negotiate a good deal with the owners-neighbours, but you'll always be subject to rural-urban planning.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:02 PM on August 6 [1 favorite]

The guys who recently bought the ghost town Cerro Gordo managed to lose the grandest building in town to a mysterious fire. The Olancha-Cartago Fire Department responded as quickly as possible, but the trouble with ghost towns is that even when there is regional assistance, it often can't get to you in time.
posted by Scram at 7:58 PM on August 6

As a lot of people have said above, where you'll run up against 'the rules' are when you're dealing with utilities ( connecting to electrical, sewage) and construction (building permits, fire codes, etc). As long as you can demonstrate / certify / satisfy whatever 'all circuits must be on 40 amp breakers, all bedrooms must have two exits in case of fire, septic systems must lead to a drain field of X dimensions, etc.', you can build and do what you want. You can fool around with 'the old 80's ranch house that came with the property is the Official House, but we built 8 tiny houses that are all under 450 square feet, so they qualify as Accessory Dwelling Units, meaning they can get away with just solar panels and composting RV toilets' if you want.

But another way to do it, although perhaps less utopian, or utopian in a different way...
-10 might be a few too many, but pool your money and buy a McMansion together. Some 7 bedroom 9 bathroom monstrosity with an enormous kitchen. At that point, it's your house, you can do what you want. If you want to be romantic about it, buy that old brick place that's a few years away from becoming the local haunted house, and fix it up yourselves with the profits from the tennis court turned market garden.
- if you realize you're now working remotely, but in an overpriced city, find someplace overlooked or hollowed out and for lack of a better word, resettle it. Buy four back to back rowhouses in some condo development that failed back in 2008. Tear down the back yard fences and replace them with a gazebo where you group-homeschool your kids. Sure you live in Delaware now, but as long as you've got Amazon Prime and Netflix, you'll just have to learn to cook your own instagram worthy food instead of having it delivered.
As long as your neighbors don't think you're a cult or a meth lab, you'll be welcomed.

The thing I haven't seen anyone try yet, so can't advise on, is turning a dead mall into an arcology. Turn the Foot Lockers and Hot Topics on the upper level into apartments, the Sears into a gym and classrooms, tear out the parking lot and put up greenhouses or a softball field. It's a Jane Jacobs-y walkable neighborhood, indoors.
posted by bartleby at 1:55 AM on August 7 [6 favorites]

If you watched the Netflix documentary Wild, Wild Country about the followers of guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in remote Oregon you'd see that part of their growth plan was to be elected to local government so that they would have control over local building codes and the like. As mentioned you can't trump state laws but most (all?) places have a well defined process of incorporating unincorporated land that would give you a measure of control.
posted by mmascolino at 5:32 AM on August 7

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