When Pascal Janin bought a lot in a remote abandoned mining town in the B.C. Interior two decades ago, it cost just $300. But it embodied the French immigrant’s favourite qualities of Canada: space, freedom and an expansive wilderness.
He was the only full-time resident in the area at first, with a cabin that had no running water, electricity or gas heating. It was completely off the grid.
“When I bought the place, it was like a no man’s land,” says Mr. Janin, who bakes pastries for a heli-skiing operation for a living.
Today, there are nearly two dozen cabins in the small area of Ferguson, B.C., and a plot of land has skyrocketed in price from a few hundred dollars to as much as $20,000. If you drive up the snow-covered roads to the tiny outpost, it still feels deserted, although striking new wood cabins in the town show much has changed in two decades.
The freedom to do whatever you want is changing as well: With so many people developing homes that are off the grid or in remote parts of the province, local governments are enforcing more permits and building codes to ensure structures are built sustainably. Many of these regulations bother Mr. Janin.
“The more people, the more the [regional government] puts their nose in things,” says Mr. Janin. “That changes the way that we are used to. We have a little less freedom as more people come.”
Real estate agents, local governments and residents across B.C. say interest in off-the-grid living has exploded during the pandemic, as housing costs rise dramatically and people in urban centres are drawn to the idea of having their own piece of nature.
Wayne Germaine, a broker and owner of Valhalla Path Realty in Nelson, says there has been a huge rise in inquiries about off-the-grid and secluded lots.
“It’s been the busiest two years that I’ve seen In 35 years in real estate,” says Mr. Germaine. “[The pandemic] was kind of a catalyst to get people to do what they’ve been thinking about already, because there’s also a generational change of a lot of younger people moving to smaller areas.”
He says much of the demand is being driven by people from B.C.’s Lower Mainland and other big cities like Calgary.
But people from cities don’t always realize what they’re getting into, he says.
He constantly gets calls about one beautiful lakefront property across the lake from Nelson, which has a large home, more than 50 acres and a hefty price tag of over $1-million. But people start to back off when they find out the property is boat-access only, with a seasonal road that would require a lot of maintenance in the winter.
“I get a lot of calls from people that don’t really understand what that type of living involves,” says Mr. Germaine, who adds off-the-grid living entails things like operating a bulldozer just to clear snow, constantly minding a wood-burning stove and being able to fix things around the house on your own.
Sometimes, he says, it’ll be days before snow clearing crews get to the road outside a lot, meaning you can effectively be trapped for days.
“It’s kind of dreamy to live like that. But it’s work.”
Despite the harsh realities of off-the-grid life, the district governments that preside over them say purchases and developments on the land are skyrocketing.
The Columbia Shuswap Regional District governs a massive swath of land from Salmon Arm to the Alberta border, including Ferguson where Mr. Janin lives.
The district says there were 208 building permits issued in its region with a construction value of around $40-million in 2019. That grew to 352 building permits issued in 2020, and then 546 permits with a construction value of more than $78-million in 2021.
“There’s a lot of people that either already owned a place here, but it was kind of a recreational residence, or they visited here and decided because of what’s happening with the pandemic to make it a more permanent place to live,” says Gerald Christie, manager of development services for the district.
He said much of the undeveloped land is owned by individuals who have held the title for decades. But many are selling to new owners because of the exponential growth in price.
“The level of construction that we’re seeing out in our rural areas is absolutely unprecedented.”
Districts are worried about uncontrolled ‘rural sprawl,’ says Mr. Christie, as well as making sure they are working toward building long-term sustainable communities.
There is also the question of emergency services, especially when wildfires and flooding are becoming increasingly common with climate change.
“Those hazards themselves can be the defining factor as to whether or not additional growth can occur in a particular area,” Mr. Christie says.
He points to one area in the district called Swansea Point, where a nearby body of water can create debris flows, similar to a mudslide – causing extensive damage and cutting off communities.
People who already live in these areas often accept the risk that the environment poses, such as Mr. Janin, who jokes that he wouldn’t make it to hospital if he had a serious medical emergency, since it would take an ambulance an hour to reach him, and then another hour to reach a medical facility.
Despite the reasons for more regulation, people like Katrina Kloppenburg, a long-time resident of Rossland, B.C., worry the rules create barriers for less wealthy people to be able to live off-the-grid.
Ms. Kloppenburg says she’s wanted to live in her own secluded lot since she first moved to the B.C. Interior town 10 years ago. Her plan was to first live in a trailer on a lot, while slowly building the home of her dreams.
She looked into buying a lot, but was dismayed first when she saw the increasing prices, and again when a real estate agent told her she wasn’t allowed to live in a trailer on the lot because of local regulations.
“I think off-the-grid is becoming something only rich people can do, because even if you have money to buy land, you can’t really live on it unless you have money to like build a house to code on top of that,” says Ms. Kloppenburg.
Back in Ferguson, Mr. Janin says he believes it is still possible to make off-the-grid life work, even on a budget, but it is definitely becoming more difficult. Some people are getting creative by building on land that is so hard to access that inspectors don’t bother checking in, he says.
There are some silver linings for him when others move to the area, he says.
When city folk first move in, they’ll occasionally pay him to help them gather wood, gravel or other supplies. Sometimes he’ll sell them pastries or serve dinner, since the nearest restaurant is 60 kilometres of rough driving away.
But one of the best things is the dump.
“The stuff that we find at the refuse station is of way better quality,” says Mr. Janin.
“I go to the dump every Sunday, not because I have refuse, but because that is when the city folks get rid of what we locals call treasures.”
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