Zoning

County Threatens Fines, Demands Expensive Alterations From Arizona Couple Hosting Free Yoga Classes and Potlucks on Their Property

Joshua and Emily Killeen are suing Yavapai County, Arizona, for what they claim are unconstitutional restrictions on their ability to advertise their business and host events on their rural property.

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Joshua and Emily Killeen left San Diego, California, looking for two things they couldn't find in Southern California: cheap land and lax regulation. Both were necessary for the married couple's dream of starting a wedding venue and yoga retreat.

"Her dream of opening a yoga studio and holding retreats, and my dream of opening a wedding venue go hand in hand," Joshua Killeen, a military veteran and wedding videographer who was introduced to yoga through his wife, tells Reason. "We're both sober so we wanted it to be a space where people can enjoy events and fun times that aren't catered around alcoholic substances."

Finding a property that was both affordable to the couple and zoned for what they were looking to do proved near-impossible in San Diego. So when a family member offered to sell them a rural property in Yavapai County, Arizona, the Killeens jumped at the opportunity.

They purchased the land and then set about building a tiny home and a barn that would serve as an event space for their eventual retreat. The two designed it all to be off-grid, sustained by solar power and rainwater—the perfect setup for the wellness-centered life and business they hoped to build out in the desert.

Or so they thought.

Soon after constructing improvements on the property, Yavapai County officials informed the couple that their buildings violated the county's zoning code and that they'd either have to pay for permits and perform extensive renovations or tear everything down and vacate the property.

When the couple started to advertise their forthcoming wedding business and take deposits on future events to finance these alternations, the county again threatened them with fines and potentially even the demolition of their home and barn. It also told them to stop holding free community events on their property.

With no other way to raise money for the required renovations and unwilling to abandon their dream, the couple decided to sue. Today, they filed a lawsuit in the U.S District Court for the District of Arizona arguing that the restrictions imposed on their ability to advertise and hold free events amount to a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech.

"There is nothing in Yavapai County's code that would authorize the government to restrict people's speech as a condition of code compliance violations, or to incentivize them to comply more quickly in the future. That's just not on the table," says Jeff Rowes, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, which is representing the Killeens. "[County officials] were doing something they weren't supposed to be doing—and even worse, what they were doing violated the Constitution."

Rowes concedes, as does Joshua Killeen, that the initial improvements the couple made on their property required permits the two hadn't obtained.

When the couple bought the 20-acre property in 2017, they believed the parcels they were purchasing were zoned as rural land and therefore didn't require permits for buildings under a certain square footage.

In fact, the county had zoned all the unincorporated parts of Yavapai County to be rural-residential, meaning that the two would need permits for any structure larger than a shed, plus a special conditional use permit to operate a business there.

This information wasn't secret, but it also wasn't obvious or even readily apparent when they bought the land. Joshua Killeen says the person they purchased the property from had misinformed them about its zoning designation. The land they bought is pretty isolated, too, and far removed from anything that might suggest it was considered residential on paper.

"You can't even throw a rock and hit our neighbor's property," says Joshua Killeen.

After buying the property, the Killeens went about building a small 800-square-foot home (plus a septic tank) and a barn they could use as an events space for their eventual wedding venue, all without pulling any permits.

Their trouble started in late June 2018, when Jacob Lane, a code enforcement officer with Yavapai County Development Services, scoped out the property in response to an anonymous complaint, spotting a number of structures on what should, according to county records, be vacant land.

He also spotted an archway bearing the words "Ananda Retreat," the name of the Killeens' business. Searching the internet for that name, he found a Facebook page and website the couple had set up to advertise their forthcoming retreat, as well as a phone number for Joshua Killeen.

Lane called Joshua Killeen that day to inform him that he would need permits for the structures on his property, and advised him to get in touch with another person at Development Services to bring his property into compliance.

In August, the Killeens met with Development Services personnel who told them that they would need to make a number of renovations to their property in order for it to be fully compliant with local regulations.

This included building a privacy fence around their isolated property, adding a commercial fire suppression system to their barn, despite them not doing any cooking or having open flames in it, and building wheelchair paths that complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act. (The demand that they build a privacy fence was later dropped.)

Joshua Killeen says that many of these proposed alternations didn't make sense for their rural property, and conflicted with their vision of living humbly and off the grid. (The required commercial fire suppression rig they were required to get wasn't going to work with the couple's rain catchment system, for instance.) The alterations were also slated to be quite pricey.

"Just getting any heavy machinery out here is very, very expensive. We're not a corporation. We're a family using our savings to start a business," says Joshua Killeen. The wheelchair paths and fire suppression system, he estimates, would cost $50,000-70,000 to build. That would be in addition to $11,000 in permitting fees the county was requiring.

Nevertheless, he and his wife agreed to bring their property into compliance. To raise money for all the county-demanded fixes, the two started advertising, and taking deposits for, future wedding bookings.

During this time, the Killeens also started hosting "Wellness Wednesday" events on their property, which included a free yoga class, vegetarian potluck, and yard games for community members.

Their ads proved successful enough, Killeen says, that their business received around 100 inquiries within three months. People loved the potlucks too, with about 30 community members showing up each week.

"It was for the community to get together, and for us to bring yoga and wellness to a community that didn't have anything like this," he says. "We had 60-year-old men who never practiced yoga before and were living out in the woods, we had them coming to every single one of our classes because it made them feel so good and so healthy."

Development Services was less pleased.

County records show that officials kept a close eye on the weekly Facebook posts the Killeens made advertising their services and community events. Finally, in late August, Lane returned to the couple's property to serve them with a Notice of Violation.

Joshua Killeen says one day he returned home only to find a white pickup truck with a Yavapai County seal on the side blocking the entrance to his property. Inside was Lane who reportedly refused to let him onto the property, asked him to get out of his vehicle, and demanded to know his name.

"He didn't announce who he was, he didn't announce what he was doing. He just shoved some papers in my face and said you have a hearing coming up," says Joshua Killeen.

That hearing occurred in September, where officials made clear that until the Killeens brought their property into full compliance with the county's zoning code, they needed to stop advertising their upcoming business, and stop holding any sort of public events (even free ones) on their property.

"They had printouts of our Facebook pages like they were criminal evidence," Joshua Killeen says. "They made it seem like we were trying to hurt people. It was very bad, very humiliating."

But when faced with the prospect of fines or having to demolish their home and barn, the Killeens agreed to comply with the county's orders to stop advertising or holding events.

A judgment issued against the two by Yavapai County in November 2018 explicitly forbids the couple from hosting weddings, group photography, yoga classes, "wellness clinics," or even potlucks on their property until they've secured all the necessary permits.

The forced cancellation of their weekly yoga class and potluck was a real let-down for the couple, and for many former attendees, says Killeen.

"When we had to cancel the 'Wellness Wednesdays,' everybody was very sad," says Killeen. "For the first six months, whenever we'd see people in town when we went to run errands or sometimes randomly, they'd reach out to ask when classes are going to pick up again."

The Killeens were initially given until March 2019 to come into compliance with all the county's zoning code requirements. They eventually received a conditional use permit for their business in April of that year. The county also granted them a number of extensions on the deadline for bringing the property into compliance.

Rowes, their attorney, says that during this time, the two tried to finance all the alterations they needed to make by plying their trades as a yoga instructor and wedding photographer off-property. The COVID-19 pandemic has effectively shut off their opportunity to do that, however, making their ability to advertise and book future events crucial to getting their business up and running.

In addition to being a bummer for the community, and a detriment to their business, the county's decision to force the couple to stop advertising and hosting events on their property is unconstitutional, says Rowes.

"The only kind of commercial speech the government can suppress is businesses that are inherently illegal, not just you can't lawfully open right now," says Rowes. "Here, it's not that Joshua and Emily's business is inherently illegal. It's OK to have wedding venues."

The fact that they still have outstanding code violations that need to be remedied is not an excuse for restricting the Killeens' First Amendment-protected speech, he says.

In addition to this free speech claim, the lawsuit filed by the Institute for Justice argues that the county's restrictions on their ability to hold free community events violate the protections of the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Their complaint asks that the county's restrictions on advertising and hosting events be lifted, and that the county pay the Killeens nominal damages of $10.

Killeen says the lawsuit he and his wife have filed is also about protecting a vision and a lifestyle they had hoped becoming rural landowners would enable them to enjoy.

"The ability to live within our means without going tens and thousands of dollars in debt, by living the way we want to live in a more simple, sustainable fashion, are rights and liberties that we should be able to appreciate and enjoy," he says.

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  1. “They made it seem like we were trying to hurt people. It was very bad, very humiliating.”

    Hell hath no fury like a bureaucrat whose vague, confusing and arbitrary directions are unheeded.

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  2. >>they believed the parcels they were purchasing were zoned as rural land

    claim against purchasing agent?

    1. Only if the purchasing agent lied.

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  3. Their trouble started in late June 2018, when Jacob Lane, a code enforcement officer with Yavapai County Development Services, scoped out the property in response to an anonymous complaint

    Of course it was an anonymous complaint. “Karen” never wants to give her name when snitching on others.

    I think a lot of this shit would go away if they just required people complaining about low level code violations and other such shit to give their names, and then made the names of the complainers a matter of public record. If you’re not willing to go on record then whatever piddly-ass non problem got your panties in a bunch probably isn’t really worth ruining some other poor schmuck’s life over.

    1. Or only allow victim prosecutions. In this case, the insurance company who might think they were lied to about the construction or value; or invitees who thought the structure dangerous, but then why not just go away?

      1. Clearly the county is the victim here. How else could they extort $11,000 in permit fees.

        Seriously, 11 large in permits? Do they write them in gold leaf on ruby encrusted paper or is it merely a way to fund their golden shower by alter boys fetish?

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    2. The complainer may well have been someone whose own building dreams were dashed by the zoning department. And their motivation may be that the more people are subject to enforcement, the more likely it is that things can get changed.

  4. I mean if you honestly believe in this day and age that you can build on your land or even acquire property without paying The Man then you are sadly deluded.

    And starting a business without paying the county protection racket? Forget it.

    Good luck but when Kelo happened I gave up thinking anyone will help. Those days are over.

    1. They sound mighty naive right from the start, that their means of earning an income is yoga classes and wedding venue. Sure, the county is being dicks, but sometimes it’s hard to have sympathy for people who won’t even look out for their own well-being.

  5. I doubt their claim will stand up in court. I may agree that the rules are unnecessary and the county’s enforcement has been heavy-handed, but they appear to have just assumed there were no regulations. That’s 100% on them.

    1. They admit they didn’t get the right permits, but that isn’t what this is about. I don’t need to have the right zoning in place to advertise my business, that’s what this is about.

      The county could absolutely close the business for failing to be zoned properly or for failing to have the right permits, the county cannot ban you from advertising for failing to have the right permits. We do not need permits for speech, that’s what 1A is.

      1. Sad to say, the facts on the ground these days seem to be, as soon as someone pays you a dollar for something, you no longer have free-speech rights! Money is evil… Except when Government Almighty moves it around!

      2. The county could absolutely close the business for failing to be zoned properly or for failing to have the right permits, the county cannot ban you from advertising for failing to have the right permits. We do not need permits for speech, that’s what 1A is.

        You’re correct: the actual remedy #1 for unpermitted structures is to bulldoze them, something the county can do any time. Saying “don’t advertise your business until you get a permit for your structures” is an attempt at a less drastic resolution. If these people aren’t willing to compromise like that, then remedy #1 applies.

        These people didn’t do their homework on the property they bought. That is 100% on them. That wouldn’t be any different in a libertarian environment, in which zoning would simply be replaced by CC&Rs.

        1. The libertarian case for onerous restrictions on using one’s own private property?

          Fuck the county, fuck regs, fuck permits from the government. I don’t remember agreeing to seek permission from the government every time I wanna stack 2 bricks.

    2. But it’s the advertising issue.

    3. “I doubt their claim will stand up in court…”

      IJ has a laudable record of winning.

  6. I’m guessing that there was no complaint, and Jacob Lane, whose last job was with the Sherrif’s departmenrt, is just an authoritarian scumbag. He’s easy to find on facebook.

    1. shut your mouth, bitch. I’ll barf in your fucking ass

    2. I know a building official who will follow a random pickup load of lumber to see if their project has a permit. some people just can’t stand to not be in on all the action. its sad really

      1. Sounds like that official saved millions of lives from unpermitted structures. That’s how he see it at least.

  7. Now that we all have an excuse to wear a mask and gloves, it is a good time to take out a few “anonymous’ complainers.

  8. This information wasn’t secret, but it also wasn’t obvious or even readily apparent when they bought the land. Joshua Killeen says the person they purchased the property from had misinformed them about its zoning designation. The land they bought is pretty isolated, too, and far removed from anything that might suggest it was considered residential on paper.

    “You can’t even throw a rock and hit our neighbor’s property,” says Joshua Killeen.

    I’m no lawyer… buuut this is the kind of thing that makes me think they got themselves off on the wrong foot here. I hope they win their case, but the “previous owner never told us” and “it wasn’t obvious that we needed X” and “ok, well, yeah, so, ok we know we did need a permit for that but everything else should be easypeasy” makes me think they might have a tough go of it here.

    1. And the way I read the county’s response is “just come into compliance by retroactively applying for a permit and then you can go merrily on your way; until you do, don’t use the structures for business”.

      In California, many places would hit you with massive fines and/or just bulldoze whatever you built.

  9. Should have applied the three S’s.

  10. “Soon after constructing improvements on the property, Yavapai County officials informed the couple that their buildings violated the county’s zoning code and that they’d either have to pay for permits and perform extensive renovations or tear everything down and vacate the property.”

    This is a far more permissive reaction than they would have had if they’d done the same in CA. Even if there’s no zoning issue, simply getting caught having built something in CA will lead to the authorities giving you the option of tearing it down immediately or tearing it down starting tomorrow; there’s no version where it’d play out that they’d allow for retroactive payment for the required permits and inspections.

    1. ^ This. The county’s reaction is actually pretty nice, compared to how most other places would treat this.

      And moving to a new place, violating zoning codes, and then suing officials is not the way to change minds or advance the cause of liberty.

      1. It’s nice how you always carry water for the “less bad” solution.

      2. I wonder if it’s only because of COVID, and as such the county would rather have money from the fine then having to spend money on getting a bulldozer out there

        1. Not meaning to just emphasize the “less bad” scenario again, but even the county paying to bulldoze the thing would be more forgiving than Cali, where the county would not only require the unpermitted building be demo’d without any recourse, but it’s on the property “owner” to pay for the demo; Kanye West just went through this up in Calabasis with some prototype “affordable housing” buildings he put up on his own land just to prove the design was viable.

          Even complying with the rules here is extraordinarily expensive. Any piece of work that pulls a permit (which in L.A. can technically include simply replacing a broken sink in the kitchen or installing a dishwasher onto existing hookups) also then requires at least one inspection (jobs like putting up stucco require multiple inspections at different steps along the way). Since the local gov’t doesn’t want to spend the money to employ inspectors as civil servants, the homeowner has to pay a “deputy inspector” to come do that; just the compliance cost for legally replacing a kitchen or bathroom sink can easily make up more than half the total cost of the job, especially if it’s a DIY install. Minimum charge for pulling a permit is around $100 (and in the city of L.A. the process can take 3-6 weeks for even the simplest job), with another $300-500 for the inspection.

  11. Fire safety and accessibility for the disabled is important, and these people don’t seem to care (or they would have done it right the first time). They mosey into a county and immediately give the middle finger to the local government (and indirectly all the other residents who do play by the rules). Now they want to keep using the property that fails to meet code, and advertise and sell events on a property that does not meet code. Now they are forcing the county to pay expensive legal bills. They deserve to get smacked around till they come into compliance. I hope they lose and are forced to pay legal fees for the county.

    1. My name is Molly, and I’m a slaver. Say it. It’s the first step.

    2. “…They deserve to get smacked around till they come into compliance…”

      You deserve a fucking with a rusty, running chain saw.
      And, as a proud contributor to IJ, I’m looking forward to them winning and you losing, slaver.
      Fuck off.

      1. Normally code violation articles really piss me off. This one…not so much. Californicators buy rural property in another state, fail to do due diligence on the purchase, fail to check with the local zoning department before commencing a major construction project, and absolutely refuse to budge on remedying the situation.

        I have no problem with the wheelchair accessibility thing (their stated goal is to run a business out of the property, and accessibility is ADA, so the county likely has no choice in enforcement) nor the fire safety stuff (UBC?). I do think that privacy fence requirement is idiotic. WTF — a privacy fence on any size property considered “acreage” runs into the $tens of thousands.

        I’m pretty surprised the IJ — one of the best bets around if you’re looking to make a donation to a libertarian cause — took their case. Just another couple of whiny, clueless Californian immigrants.

        Go ahead, call me a slaver.

    3. I hope you get fucked over by the government. It’s the only way slavers like you learn.

  12. Unless they work something out with the county, they don’t have a good legal path ahead of them. I don’t see where their due process was violated. All I see are two people unfamiliar with land use law who built an event center that had no way to extinguish a fire, that excluded people with disabilities, and that used land zoned for residential as commercial.

    They could claim a regulatory taking of their private property’s economic value, but if the regulation has not deprived them of total economic value of their property, then that’s not looking good for them either.

    I couldn’t find an address for this place, but that county has 235,000 people living in it. It’s not dense or anything, but that isn’t necessarily off the grid. I’m sure they have to deal with people building crap out there all the time.

    Does anyone think it might be bad practice to take money from people in order to finish building something that may not exist?

    1. “Does anyone think it might be bad practice to take money from people in order to finish building something that may not exist?”

      You mean like a deposit? Or what did you have in mind?

      1. Deposits are down payments for goods and services that either exists or are actually (not probably) deliverable. This isn’t a deposit, because they are treating these down payments as investments to correct their mistakes instead of payments meant to reserve their facilities. They don’t know if they can deliver the services they are collecting money for. There is no guarantee of any kind of return, either as an investment or a refund. it’s ethically, financially, and legally unsound.

        Their service delivery is dependent on the outcome of pending legal matters. They are collecting payments and using the money to address these legal matters to MAYBE deliver promised services. This logic is circular or perhaps self-referencing. When one piece falls apart, the whole thing collapses as a scam would.

        If they are trying to run a legitimate business, then they need to reconsider the manipulation of their finances. Their practices raise as many red flags as their initial disregard for local zoning ordinances.

  13. The couple in this story sound like real rocket scientists. That said, in a just society it would be perfectly reasonable to assume you can build what you like on property you own.

  14. I expect that the “fire suppression” system is an overhead sprinkler system. They’re costly and, more often than not, go off when there’s no fire to put out, damaging everything in the process. And wheelchair access for a place in the sticks is ridiculous. But the lawsuit is a fool’s errand. Someone should explain to the couple that the US is no longer a good place for what they’re doing. The kind of lifestyle experiments that were so common in bygone years are unthinkable in today’s America.

  15. So 1. Sure are a lot of new faces on today, all supporting authoritarian bullshit. Did all the assholes get new socks at once or something? and 2. Would they have any recourse with regard to arguing that the land is improperly zoned? Seems to me that if it’s in the middle of nowhere and is zoned as rural-residential, that’s done with the express purpose of doing stuff like this to people and stealing money for permits.

  16. Business is business. The COVID-19 pandemic has effectively shut off their opportunity to do that, however, making their ability to advertise and book future events crucial to getting their business up and running. weekend electrician

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