Off the Grid in a Florida Suburb, Fighting Municipal Code
Tomorrow's guest as we welcome Jim Murphy, Sustainability Director from Rhode Island College back as a co-host. We will also be talking about RIC's amazing, annual sustainability summit that will happen next week on their campus (we will be there to cover it, of course): 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 By Theodore Ross Bloomberg Business Week
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.”