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Off the Grid in a Florida Suburb, Fighting Municipal Code


Two 55-gallon cisterns collect all the Florida rainwater Speronis needs for drinking, bathing, and flushing waste. The city told her it was illegal to disconnect from municipal pipes

Photograph by Dana Lixenberg

Two 55-gallon cisterns collect all the Florida rainwater Speronis needs for drinking, bathing, and flushing waste. The city told her it was illegal to disconnect from municipal pipes

In Cape Coral, Fla., a city of snowbird retirees and strip malls off the Caloosahatchee River, there’s a part of town that never quite recovered from the real estate bust. Foreclosure notices spill from the mailboxes of homes lining the city’s shallow canals and gather in trash drifts by the front doors. Weeds run riot in the yards of properties built for no money down in the flush days and then abandoned when they went underwater.

Even amid the eerie detritus, the small ranch-style duplex that Robin Speronis moved into in January 2013 is a little unusual. For one thing, Speronis, an energetic 54-year-old widow with cropped blonde hair and stark blue eyes, never had the city turn on the power or water. She set two 55-gallon plastic cisterns on either side of the entranceway and attached gutter downspouts to collect rainwater. She perched a small solar charger on a windowsill with wires snaking inside to a battery that in turn powers a few lights and a laptop. Wireless Internet is siphoned from a nearby Tire Kingdom. Inside, a propane lantern hangs from an unused light fixture in the dining area. Speronis is living off the grid—no power from the city, rainwater her only source for bathing, drinking, and sewage—in the middle of her tumbledown subdivision. It has caused a national furor.

Speronis first took an interest in detaching from the system during the years she spent caring for her husband, Zenny, who suffered from a neurodegenerative disorder. As his condition worsened, she turned to homeopathic treatments and other unconventional regimens: raw foods, colloidal silver, an avoidance of refrigeration and air conditioning, a focus on the promotion of regular bowel movements. It was a struggle to explain to the people around her, but she provided for Zenny without doctors, pharmaceuticals, or any medical assistance until his death at 84 in 2010. She self-published a book about “freeing” him from the health-care system and “home deathing him naturally.”

Speronis had worked as a real estate agent and a massage therapist, but most of her savings went to making her husband comfortable in his last days. This included the earlier purchase in 2009 of a $495,000 waterside home on a palm-lined street in Cape Coral. Speronis knew she didn’t have the money to make the mortgage payments, so she engaged in what she called a “strategic default.” Using her knowledge of the real estate industry to delay foreclosure, she stayed afloat by selling off her possessions.

“Nothing was hard. Every time I did something it was easier than I thought it was going to be.”

After the lender finally took the house in April 2012, Speronis underwent a radical ascetic conversion. She surveyed what remained of her things and asked, “Do I really need this? Is this of value to me?” She got rid of everything, from her BMW convertible to her wedding album, and attempted to establish a fully self-reliant existence. In June of that year, she bought an RV and moved onto a rented property in a nearby wooded area. She stayed for seven months, teaching herself to live without most modern conveniences. “I had never even gone camping,” she says now, “but nothing was hard. Every time I did something it was easier than I thought it was going to be. I thought, ‘I can do this. I can do this myself.’ ” Eventually the land flooded in the Florida rains, and Speronis stopped paying her rent. She was evicted and returned to Cape Coral—but not to the grid.

In a new home off Del Prado Boulevard, which she bought from a friend, Speronis removed and sold the oven, refrigerator, and air conditioning units, even the ducts. The house was already off the electrical grid. An earlier resident had been stealing municipal power, and the city had cut the lines and removed the meters. Speronis subsisted primarily on a year’s supply of dried and canned food she’d bought while she had the RV. She drank and bathed in rainwater, filling a four-gallon, solar-heated camp shower. Her only connection to city services was the sewer: She flushed waste down the toilet, again with rainwater. “I can go weeks or a month without spending a penny,” she says.

In true American fashion, Speronis began writing about her experiences as a pioneer of the subdivision. She started a blog called Off the Grid Living in Southwest Florida—One Woman’s Story. One day last November, Liza Fernandez, a reporter for WFTX, the local Fox (FOX) affiliate, decided to do a story on her. Near the end of the broadcast, Fernandez noted that Speronis’s rudimentary setup violated “most codes and ordinances” in Cape Coral and that “anyone caught living in such a home could be forcibly removed.”

Photograph by Dana Lixenberg

Speronis appeared unfazed, even a little excited at a challenge to her lifestyle. “If my father in heaven wants me to be the test case for something,” she said, firmly, “I’ll be the test case for something.” Town officials were watching.
 
 
“The desire to ‘get off the grid’ is anchored deep in the American psyche,” says Nick Rosen, author of Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government, and True Independence in Modern America. From Daniel Boone’s sturdy self-reliance on the Western frontier to Henry David Thoreau’s individualist morality at Walden Pond, to be alone and disconnected is to be an idealized version of an American. An instinctive yearning to slip the chains of society has certainly been felt by anyone who’s ever gotten a big utility bill, but, as Rosen notes, “It’s very unusual to do it in a city.”

Estimates of the national off-the-grid population are vague, hovering between 180,000 and 250,000, almost entirely in rural settings where public utilities—and government oversight—are in short supply. Climate-change concerns spur many, as does an interest in a simpler, low-tech lifestyle. Disaster preppers and militiamen see it as a hedge against impending social collapse.

Not everyone who wants to go off the grid can. Assembling the right equipment and supplies can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but money isn’t the only limiting factor. Sometimes the grid just won’t let you go. Lawsuits with homeowner associations are commonplace, as are disputes with local government. James and Frances Babb, residents of Clarkson Valley, Mo., for example, have been battling authorities for years over permits to install solar panels that the city has refused to grant, citing construction and fire safety issues.

The day after the Fox segment on Speronis aired, an officer from the Cape Coral code compliance division knocked on her door, rousing her two dogs, Suzie, a chihuahua, and Faith, a mixed breed. Speronis didn’t answer. The officer, taking note of the water barrels and severed power lines, stuck a placard on the door declaring the property unfit for human habitation. “Any person entering this property without official authorization,” it read, “is subject to removal and/or arrest.”

Speronis’s “test case for something” quickly escalated. Fox continued to run segments on her, gleefully accusing the city of retaliating against her after seeing its report. City representatives offered a series of unconvincing denials, first saying they believed the home was vacant, then citing an open compliance violation—mulch blocking the municipal right-of-way—and finally a “citizen complaint.” Records, however, show the complaint had come from a city employee who had watched the show and alerted his colleagues.

Cape Coral argued that it had nothing against Speronis going off grid, only with how she’d done so. “There are an awful lot of alternatives out there that meet code,” says Frank Cassidy, the city’s code compliance division manager. “The problem is that she is not using those methods.” He ticked off a litany of municipal resources for cisterns, composting toilets, retrofit grants, equipment, housing assistance, and programs to sell excess solar power to the grid. “The city has the health, welfare, and safety of all its citizens to consider,” says Rana Erbrick, the city council member for Speronis’s district. “But there also comes a point where you gotta do what you gotta do to protect the integrity of the system.”

Statements like that inflamed the citizens of Cape Coral, many of whom were rooting for their local nonconformist. Strangers began to stop her on the street or honk in support as they drove past her yard. While the city had certain aspects of the law behind it, all local residents saw was a widow living alone in a poor part of town getting steamrollered by the government. Speronis’s battle caught the eye of the national media, from the environmentalists of Treehugger, a popular website, to the libertarians of Glenn Beck’s The Blaze. Producers from Doomsday Preppers, a reality show on the National Geographic Channel that “explores the lives of otherwise ordinary Americans who are preparing for the end of the world as we know it,” contacted her but chose not to film her. “Guess I wasn’t crazy enough,” Speronis says.

Photograph by Dana Lixenberg

Speronis turned out to have a knack for publicity. She found a real estate litigator named Todd Allen to take her case pro bono. Allen had made a name for himself in 2011 when he showed up at a Bank of America (BAC) branch with a sheriff’s deputy, two movers, and a gaggle of TV cameras and tried to foreclose on it. (The Daily Show With Jon Stewart interviewed him.) The Rutherford Institute, a right-wing libertarian organization in Virginia, took up her cause as well, offering to serve as legal consultants and pay court costs. “It’s like these cases where people want a couple of chickens in their yards and the cities say that’s illegal,” says John Whitehead, the organization’s founder. “I believe in freedom of property. Why would any government agency be concerned?”

Speronis cut a defiant figure in TV and radio interviews. “Cape Coral needs to be afraid of me,” she said. “I’m not afraid of them.”
 
 
The arrival of national forces seemed to harden Cape Coral’s resolve. In January the city amended the original violations, citing Speronis for 36 code and ordinance infractions, from an improperly installed electrical system to insufficiently heated water. At a hearing that month, a special magistrate dismissed 33 of them, largely because the city lacked evidence. Code officers had never been to the property, thereby making it difficult to argue, for example, that the house had faulty wiring when no one had inspected it. The magistrate did find Speronis in violation of regulations that required city water to flow through her pipes, even if she had an alternate water supply—the rainwater. It was, literally, against the law to disconnect from the water system. “Reasonableness and code requirements,” the special magistrate declared, “don’t always go hand-in-hand.”

Speronis was given three months to bring the house up to code or risk fines, foreclosure, and even imprisonment. Allen vowed to appeal and also began work on a case against Cape Coral for malicious prosecution.

City representatives periodically proclaimed their interest in an amicable resolution. “Our primary objective is voluntary compliance through education,” says Cassidy, the compliance manager. “Every house has a story, and we try to find that story to guide them to compliance. We don’t like hearings or escalating remedies.”

“Reasonableness and code requirements don’t always go hand-in-hand,” the special magistrate declared.

But Speronis had confirmed at the magistrate’s hearing that she was flushing waste into the sewer with rainwater without paying to use the system, and the city moved against her. A few days after the hearing, city officials showed up at her house, dug up the front yard, and capped her access to the sewer. Then they filed a complaint against her with the Florida Department of Health, alleging that she was creating a health hazard by spreading her waste on the lawn. The charge was untrue. Speronis used a camp toilet with detachable bags that she tossed into the city garbage system—which was a code violation, but not one the city had alleged. The state health department investigated, cleared Speronis, and said the city had committed its own violation and created a “sanitary nuisance” by capping the line.

City officials began to leak information on Speronis’s troubled past to the press. Speronis had a 2009 felony conviction stemming from the theft of a real estate client’s home deposit money. She attributes this to a banking error caused by the stress of caring for her sick husband, but she pleaded guilty, gave up her real estate license, and was placed on probation. More damning for her image was a 2007 animal cruelty conviction for failing to provide her dogs with adequate food and water. Speronis says the animal welfare people didn’t understand her natural methods.

The dogs, which Speronis describes as “my children,” became a pressure point the city could exploit. Animal control tried on eight occasions to take the pets, but Speronis hid them with one of her neighbors—a group that tends to view her as a benign eccentric. Speronis made friends with a group of retired men who met early each morning at a nearby Burger King, where employees allowed Speronis to use the bathroom without purchasing anything. The men all concede that Speronis “liked the fight” and the publicity. But they also objected to the city’s harsh tactics. “She ought to be able to do what she wants to do,” says one of them, Robert Goodridge.

Speronis’s house in Cape Coral, where supporters honk as they drive pastPhotograph by Dana LixenbergSperonis’s house in Cape Coral, where supporters honk as they drive past

When animal control failed to find the dogs, the city contacted the Florida Department of Corrections, arguing that Speronis’s failure to cooperate constituted a probation violation. She permitted an inspection by her probation officer, who found both dogs to be in adequate health and declined to act.

And then there was the issue of who owned the house. Speronis maintains that a friend had essentially given it to her—the sale was recorded with the county for $10—because it was vacant and in disrepair and he didn’t like her living in the woods. The friend, a semiretired landscaper named Ronald Mayo, emerged to dispute that, telling police that Speronis had forged his name and a notary seal on the title transfer documents. “She was a friend, and I was letting her stay there,” Mayo says. “I gave her a small piece of paper to go to the county to represent me with the property. Next thing I know, she sold the AC units.”

Speronis denies this account. “Men like Ron, they don’t understand me,” she says. “They think I’m doing this because I can’t make ends meet. But it’s fun. I want to do it.”
 
 
In late March, Speronis met me at her front door dressed in faded blue jeans and a bright yellow blouse. She looked thin. Most of her food stores had been depleted, save for a few sacks of oatmeal and some canned beans. The “survival seed” garden she had attempted on the front lawn had failed and was now a dusty wreck. She interspersed Zen pronouncements about dispelling “negative energy” in the house and “having beauty around me” with the slightly manic broadsides of a libertarian true believer. “I’m here to make a point—to bring justice,” she said. “You can’t just declare someone outside of the system and kick them out of their house.”

A little more than a week later, officials from the code compliance division, building department, and animal control along with several police officers descended on Speronis’s house with an inspection warrant. As with the sewer-capping incident, much of what they were looking for arose from details Speronis provided at the magistrate’s hearing: the solar panel, the lantern, a camp stove in the kitchen, the camp shower, and other off-the-grid fixes. The officials found 37 new code violations.

During the inspection, Speronis says, she berated one of the police officers: “I’m that much of a threat? A 54-year-old widow living by herself? How can you sleep at night?”

“Better than your dogs,” the officer responded.

“The most hazardous issues were the use of the stove and the propane lantern inside, as well as the recharging of the battery,” says Cassidy. “If she ends up blowing herself up or catching fire in that house, then it’s not, ‘why are you picking on this woman?’ It’s ‘why didn’t you do something about it?’ ”

Animal control took both dogs to the county shelter for examination. They returned the chihuahua, Suzie, but kept the older dog, 14-year-old Faith, and leaked photos to local media outlets that showed her without any fur on her hindquarters. “I don’t care how this lady lives,” says Glenn Johnson, operations manager at the county animal welfare department. “She has to take care of her animals by law. She can’t just do what she wants.”

Speronis contends that Faith lost her coat years earlier in the care of an incompetent veterinarian. “It’s evil,” she says, breaking into tears. “It’s like when they capped my sewer. I was upset because the intention was not public safety or welfare, but to do harm.”

In April, Speronis fired Allen, her attorney, when he suggested that some of the city’s complaints about the house and the dogs had merit. “I subscribe to the way she wants to live, and the government is trying to restrict her in ways that don’t make sense,” he says. “But I’m concerned that she is trying to fight the fight just to fight it.”

On May 14, Speronis was arrested on a misdemeanor animal cruelty charge. The city attorney persuaded a judge to hold her without bail under a 2011 law intended to keep violent probation violators behind bars. Known as the Widman Act, it was named after a police officer shot and killed by a probationer with a felony warrant. It was being applied in this case against a woman who may or may not have given her dog a skin condition.

Speronis languished in jail for more than a month, including a week in solitary confinement, after she refused to be tested for tuberculosis. “They have no right to take my blood,” she said during a phone call from custody. “The health-care system wants to control my body, and that’s evil.” She turned down the services of a public defender and declined to accept a plea bargain that would not have included prison time. “I want a jury trial,” she said. She also told me she preferred isolation to the “drama” of the general population. “I have a 10-by-14 cell and my own shower that I can use twice a week. There’s peace and quiet.” She used the time alone to begin writing another book about her experiences. “It’s amazing what happens when you stand up for your principles, your values. I have no regrets.”

It can be hard to take such pronouncements from Speronis at face value. While she is likable, articulate, and vulnerable, her blend of cheerful defiance and messianic libertarianism can read either as inspirational or delusional. Maybe the nature of the fight was bound to produce a protagonist with flaws: Those who crave disconnection the most may often carry the most baggage, and only a zealot will fight the government indefinitely.

On June 16 the city abruptly dropped the animal cruelty charges, saying it lacked proof. Speronis was released from jail and given back her dog. She returned to the house, vowing not to make any changes. “They can fine me all they want,” she says. “I’m not going to let them dictate the way I live.” On July 4, Roger Desjarlais, the manager of Lee County, which encompasses Cape Coral, e-mailed Speronis an apology of sorts: “I’m hopeful you will not judge the entire Lee County organization based on your experience with our Animal Services department. … We hope that you, Faith and Suzie are doing well.” That said, the conflict with the city will surely continue. For now, Speronis is home, off the grid, and outside the law.

Ross is a Bloomberg Businessweek contributor.

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