For so many folks, one of the overriding goals of their life is to live off-grid. A lifestyle of true self-sufficiency is difficult, but it also provides a freedom from certain concerns that living as a component in society simply never can.
Plus, when you’re already used to taking care of literally everything yourself, even the biggest disasters seem a lot more manageable.
But of course, no matter how prepared you might be to make your dream a reality, the laws of the land tend to get in the way.
Each and every state in the Union has differing laws on the subject that can affect you at the local and county level. It might make setting up your ideal off-grid homestead expensive, difficult or even impossible.
To help you zero in on the ideal location of your ideal off-grid property, we are bringing you guides to the off-grid laws of various states. Today, we are looking at Montana.
Can You Legally Live Off-Grid in Montana?
It’s indeed legal to live off-grid in the state of Montana. And more than that, beyond being technically legal many of the laws in the state do seem designed to make it more feasible than other places.
For those who truly want to get away from it all, or just live life on their own terms, Montana has a lot going for it.
However, it is not a completely laissez-faire place that some proponents would have you believe it is…
You’ll find state and local laws affecting virtually every decision you make when it comes to installing utilities and building your home.
However, there’s a lot to like about Montana’s off-grid laws.
Where is it Best to Live Off-Grid in Montana?
Pretty much everywhere in Montana is amicable to off-grid living except perhaps in the most densely populated areas.
Some areas don’t even have zoning laws! However, for maximum flexibility you might want to seek out a place that doesn’t have a requirement for construction permits.
Gallatin County is one such place in Montana, and there are many others besides.
Something to keep in mind is that, as appealing as this is, it’s also a double-edged sword for people who want to live life in quiet solitude.
Anybody, to include major corporations, could swoop in, buy up a lot of land and then put in anything they want to.
You might find yourself living next to an airstrip, a burgeoning retirement community or rapidly expanding urban sprawl and bedroom communities in the future.
In other places, sometimes even in the same counties, you might find isolated municipalities that do have zoning laws. This might serve as a useful buffer against unexpected major developments.
What are the Off-Grid Electricity Laws in Montana?
Pretty much all kinds of off-grid electrical systems are legal in Montana, and generally the worst speed bump you’ll encounter is a requirement for permitting to install and hook up your system.
However, like most other places certain counties and localities within those counties might have additional laws and rules about the type, construction and placement of various systems.
For instance, some towns have a surprisingly strict policy about solar and other off-grid power systems.
But when it comes to alternative green energy, you’ll find that there was a lot to like about Montana.
It is one of the most permissive states in the Union when it concerns the private use of wind turbines and it even has many incentive programs to entice residents to use them.
How Can You Qualify as a Farm in Montana?
Qualifying as an agricultural property, or farm, in Montana is a little easier or a little harder depending on the size of your property.
Broadly, any parcel of land that is over 160 acres in size will automatically be designated agricultural unless the land is specifically being used for other purposes.
If your plot is smaller than 20 acres, you’ll need to apply for agricultural designation and also meet certain criteria.
Pretty smaller parcels, you’ll need to produce and sell at least $1,500 of what the state defines as “agricultural product” from the property.
As long as this product is documented and is eaten by people or animals it works. Plus, it doesn’t have to be sold to any other consumers if it is all used by people or livestock living on the property so long as there is documentation.
In case the parcel does not produce the $1,500 of agricultural products according to the above, exemptions may be granted, though these are significantly more specific.
A smaller property that is undergoing a hardship or force majeure that reduces the production or income potential of the property may be granted a forbearance agricultural classification, as will any parcel that meets a minimum carrying capacity as established by Montana State University.
Properties falling between the 20 and 160 acre bounds must simply apply for designation.
Homeschooling in Montana
Homeschooling is entirely possible and popular in Montana, but there are requirements that parents need to know about and must accommodate to remain legal.
For starters, homeschooler parents must notify the county superintendent of schools that their child will be homeschooled.
Then they must teach the required curriculum subjects for the required amount of hours and maintain immunization and attendance records as normal for any school, along with complying with all safety and health regulations for the teaching location.
The curriculum is pretty standard, and will include the usual math, social studies, health, arts, science, language and so forth.
But, as a homeschooling parent or teacher, you’ll be the one to provide the regimen, schedule, curriculum, and all required instructional materials.
But, homeschooled students aren’t required by Montana law to participate in any standardized testing. Parents may opt to have their kids take the tests in order to gauge their progress though.
Luckily, Montana is one of the more popular and prosperous States for homeschooling and you can find many resources throughout the state in the form of homeschool co-op groups and homeschool associations which can serve to streamline your homeschooling experience, provide help with curriculums.
They can even provide field trips and other secondary activities to your kids.
In Montana, your children won’t have to be a part of the school system in order to get the full school experience!
Montana Off-Grid Water Rights Generally
As with many other places, one of the stickiest off-grid considerations for living in Montana is water rights.
In fact, Montana can be even more particular than other states that are typically thought of as restrictive considering how dry the state is throughout.
The bottom line up front is that under state law, all water in the state of Montana belongs to the State!
Many parts of Montana are perpetually under drought or near-drought conditions, and this makes setting up water on your property to facilitate your lifestyle difficult, lengthy and highly provisional.
Even if you do obtain a permit, regulators might revoke it at any time if they find that it interferes with groundwater in any way.
Accessing and maintaining the right to use any water on or even below your property is not guaranteed, and typically the process is lengthy and aggravating.
All water rights must be cleared with the DNRC, or Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
There is an extensive permitting process and fees involved. We’ll look more at the specific use cases below.
Well Water in Montana
In Montana generally, you’ll have a fairly easy time accessing well water so long as it is a very modest well.
If you use no more than 10 acre-feet of water yearly and the appropriation is less than 35 gallons per minute no water rights permit is required.
However, you’ve only got 2 months after the installation of a well is completed and normal use begins to send in your notice to the DNRC.
If your well uses more water than that you’ll need to go through an even longer, more expensive and more complicated permitting process.
Montana Laws on Surface Water
This is where Montana law will really bite potential off-grid homesteaders in the you-know-where.
If you have so much as a stream on your property to say nothing of a large pond or lake you must apply to the DNRC for the aforementioned long, expensive and aggravating permit, known as a Beneficial Use Permit.
This, more than most other things, might influence your choice of properties…
However, there are exceptions that will be of interest to farmers and any homesteaders keeping animals.
The beneficial use permit requirement is waived if you want to build a livestock reservoir, those certain requirements must be met.
Namely, the total capacity of the reservoir is less than 15 acre feet and appropriates annually no more than 30 acre feet of water, it is constructed on a parcel of land that is 40 acres or larger, and owned by yourself, and it is not located in a non-perennial stream.
But you aren’t off the hook just because you don’t have to seek a beneficial use permit. This is a case where you must file for a provisional permit within 60 days of implementation with the DNRC.
Can You Harvest Rainwater in Montana?
You might be pretty nervous considering the topic of rainwater collection after learning that the state owns all water.
It probably won’t make you feel any better to learn that in the fine print of the laws the state specifically claims to own all “atmospheric water,” meaning rain and other precipitation.
Yikes, that’s some hubris! But, it’s not that bad because, on the other hand, the state also says, plainly and on their own website, that residential collection of rainfall from rooftops is legal so long as it is used for non-potable purposes like watering a garden or lawn.
But, as you’re probably expecting, there’s still a catch and the DNRC requests that any resident harvesting more than a tenth of an acre-foot of water contact them to discuss the matter.
And believe me, a request from the DNRC is really an order, so make sure you check in with them if you’re going to set up any large-scale rainwater harvesting.
Can You Dam Your Property in Montana?
Generally no. Anything that interferes with surface water rights, or anything that will reliably affect subterranean water is highly regulated by the DNRC.
You must call and consult with them before you even think about putting in any dam on your property.
Can You Dig a Pond on Your Property in Montana?
Yes, but you’ll need a beneficial use permit, and as mentioned previously that is a very lengthy complicated and sometimes expensive process.
It’s not out of the question, and others have done the same thing, but you must be prepared for quite an ordeal before you commit, and don’t even think about starting it before all the I’s are dotted and the T’s are crossed.
Are there any Navigable Water Laws to Know in Montana?
Yes. For starters, all water rights including those of navigable water are closely connected to the terrestrial property but they can be sold, adjudicated or modified separately.
For instance, any property owner that has water rights they sell or transfer those rights independently of the rest of their property.
This can make a big difference when it comes to the viability of navigable above surface water for any purpose you might be considering.
Furthermore, Montana’s laws concerning appropriation follow a distinct hierarchy of sorts. For starters, anyone who has water rights must make use of the water in order to keep the rights, and they can be stripped from you if you are just “squatting” on the water.
Also, any water that is being used must meet the standard of use known as “beneficial use.” This, of course, is defined by the DNRC.
Also, for flowing water in particular whoever held the rights to the water first or earliest has priority in disputes over use of said water. We will call this person the “elder.”
This commonly leads to brew-ups in drought conditions because our elder who has had rights longer that is downstream from a person who has not had rights as long, the “younger,” might have legal entitlement to use the water while the younger might be barred from making use of it; to the point that the younger cannot interfere with the flow to the elder rights holder!
What are the Graywater Laws in Montana?
The use, reuse and treatment of gray water is legal in Montana but is a permitted activity.
Generally, graywater may only be used to irrigate plants when untreated if the plants or crops aren’t intended for human consumption and the gray water is truly gray water: no human waste or sewage of any kind.
In all cases, greywater must still be disposed of if used for household purposes by entering an approved sewage or septic system.
Off-Grid Sewage Laws in Montana
One great thing about Montana’s laws is that they are quite permissible concerning the handling of sewage and other waste in an off-grid context.
Many truly off-grid systems like composting toilets are just fine in most places, and though this is another typically permitted factor, the state statutes go into quite a lot of detail about what is and what is not permissible, meaning this is one permit that is at least straightforward and relatively simple to acquire.
However, there’s one major snag that some people will run into, specifically the requirement, by law, that every household with running water must have an installed septic system or else be connected to city or county sewer systems.
If you have running water but prefer to just use composting toilets, you might have an uphill battle.
In any case, most of these laws can be found in the same section as those for disposal and storage of sewage.
Are Compost Toilets Legal in Montana?
Yes, and almost everywhere. However, you might run into exclusionary statutes if your house has running water because there will be another pre-existing mandate for either a septic system or sewer hookups in that case.
Any Other Off-Grid Laws to Worry About in Montana?
Not too many. Montana is amenable to outhouses, though the building codes and requirements for them and specifically for lined versus unlined latrines or outhouses vary from place to place.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.