TAOS — Recent enforcement of stringent travel trailer rules by Taos County’s planning department has left some people living in campers with no choice but to pack up and leave, while others are jumping through hoops to avoid abandoning the places they call home.
Under the county’s land use development code, travel trailers can be occupied on private property for only 30 days at a time, and then must be moved to another location for 30 days before they can return for the same amount of time.
For many people around the county who rely on a travel trailer as a temporary form of housing while they find a permanent home, the rule is creating additional problems in an already tricky situation.
Jae Sanders had been living in an Airstream for about a year at Morning Star Farms in Arroyo Seco when the county notified her landowner the trailer would have to move. On Tuesday, she was approaching the 30th day since the notification — her deadline to move.
A Taos area resident for nearly 10 years, Sanders has been working on a separate mobile structure she plans to live in permanently. She has moved around many times and for many different reasons, but this is the first time she must move because her home has been deemed unacceptable for full-time habitation.
Sanders said she moved to the area intending to buy land to homestead on, but she quickly realized land available was out of her price range.
Prices for more traditional housing also have increased in recent years, so she settled on the trailer lifestyle as a temporary solution.
“To me, this is a really good option for the in-between phases of your life,” Sanders said. “I don’t know what the problem really is.”
Taos County Planning Director Edward Vigil said the county does not actively seek out residents living in travel trailers but does respond to complaints.
A neighbor had notified the county about Sanders’ Airstream at Morning Star Farms. Officials then informed Sanders and farm owner Melinda Bateman that all residential trailers would have to be removed from the property, or Bateman would face a fine of up to $300 per day and up to 90 days in jail.
Bateman, who has run Morning Star Farms for 28 years, lives in a travel trailer that has remained in the same spot since 2013.
She said the county told her she could obtain a building permit to maintain her current living situation for 180 days. In the meantime, she must convert the trailer into what the county considers a permanent home, which requires removing the hitch and wheels and creating a permanent foundation.
Getting a permit isn’t always easy.
“Because I live this very minimal kind of lifestyle, the amount of money and time and energy that it will take to comply is scary to me,” said Bateman, who is recovering from hip replacement surgery that “didn’t go particularly well. … So yeah, there’s just a lot of stress.”
She said, for now, as long as she is working to come into compliance, “they won’t enforce any of those fines or penalties,” but she has no written agreement with the county ensuring this.
The other travel trailers Bateman is housing on her property, including Sanders’, are moving.
Sanders is moving her trailer to Colorado. Still, she plans to fight for rules allowing people to live in trailers in Taos County.
“It’s sort of obscene that we have homeless people and all these things sitting vacant, and it’s like you can only use it part of the time,” she said.
Sanders said she looked into other options before deciding to leave Taos County, such as taking up permanent residence at an RV park. The cost of “$550 to $600 a month for you to park your own thing there and plug in” was too much, she said.
The county allows residents to live in an RV while building a permanent structure, but the RV must meet several requirements: It must be hooked up to water, utilities and sanitary facilities, and the resident must submit a letter of request to stay put.
RVs can be stored on private property, “but must be vacated [and] be disconnected from all utilities.”
Some people living in travel trailers said they have alternative means of meeting those needs, such as composting toilets, solar panels and rain catchment systems.
Ryan Timmermans, an Afghanistan War veteran and founder of Veterans Off Grid, which helps homeless veterans and promotes eco-friendly living in Carson, also has faced obstacles from the county when it comes to building permits.
Timmermans has two campers on his property, which he said are now unoccupied due to the county’s rules. For now, he is living on the land alone, though he envisions a community of off-grid veterans there.
He said he doesn’t understand the reasons for rules that only make it difficult for people to live an off-grid lifestyle they feel isn’t disturbing anyone else or posing any dangers.
“The county has made it so expensive to build because of all the regulations and hoops you have to jump through,” Timmermans said. “People can’t afford to do it, so they live in fifth-wheels. You take away the fifth-wheels, you have another homeless person. It’s one vicious cycle, especially in a pandemic.”
Bateman said she chose to live in minimalist housing on her farm rather than sink money into a house she couldn’t afford. She has seen friends struggle with the housing market. “We’re obviously having a housing crisis,” she said.
Local resident Gillian Joyce said she and her husband lived in a travel trailer for several years while saving up to buy a house. “Cost of living combined with depressed wages require such alternatives,” she said. “We bought our trailer from another couple who used it for the same purpose.”
If the county were to move forward with kicking people out of their travel trailers, “it would be an incredible humanitarian failing on their part,” Joyce said. She suggested the county instead put a moratorium on enforcing the rule during the housing crisis.
Timmermans said he hopes to work with county officials and other landowners on possible permitting changes.
“I’ve brought it up to the county commissioners, and they’re at least talking about it,” he said.
“I’m trying to do something amazing for people who are down and out,” he added. “… I want them to have their own place and be able to have beautiful views and be able to grow their own food and produce their own utilities.”
A longer version of this story first appeared in The Taos News, a sister publication of The Santa Fe New Mexican.