Park County targets off-grid living

Campers face eviction if they don’t comply with county regulations

9NEWS at 9 p.m. 11/17/16.

PARK COUNTY, COLO. -  Steve Bedigian lives in a hole in the ground.

His only protection from the elements nearly 9,000 feet above sea level comes from a tent structure he built himself.

He lives in the dirt and he does it dirt cheap—and he does so with a smile on his face. This is Steve’s American dream, and he knows it’s nothing like yours.

Steve also knows it’s a dream he might soon lose because the county government (and many of his neighbors) aren’t willing to tolerate the eyesore and potential environmental risks that come with the way he lives.

A ‘ROBINSON CRUSOE LIFE’

“I live an idyllic life up here. Not in the eyes of most,” Bedigian said. “I am more free than anyone I personally know.”

Steve rejects society’s view of a normal “productive” life as little more than an endless quest to obtain more material possessions that ultimately won’t lead to happiness.

“I live a Robinson Crusoe life up here,” Bedigian said. “Except I have the advantage over Robinson Crusoe. He didn’t know how privileged he was to be alone on that island.”

Bedigian doesn’t live on an island, but on six-acre parcel with no tree cover, visible for miles from nearly any vantage point in the giant high-altitude valley near the unincorporated town of Hartsel.

He’s owned this scrap of land for four decades, but only moved in a year and a half ago.

MEMORIAL OR TRASH HEAP?

Ask any local about the “flag man” and they know you’re talking about Steve.

His parcel sits right along Highway 24 and it’s covered in American flags.

The way he flies the flags hasn’t earned Bedigian many friends around here. He leaves them up in the punishing high-altitude wind, allowing them to become tattered and torn. Some lay on the ground or over structures.

Folks at the local burger joint in Hartsel didn’t want to be interviewed, but one of the first things on their minds was what they saw as “mistreatment” of the flag.

Bedigian calls his land “Sgt. Mike’s sculpture garden,” in honor of his late father who fought in Korea as a Marine and earned a Purple Heart.

“It started out because my dad was a real flag lover,” Bedigian said.

The disrepair of the flags has a symbolic meaning to Steve—representing the scars a person like his father earns through life.

This has driven complaints to the county, which is less concerned with treatment of the nation’s flag than it is with the fact that Bedigian has also covered his parcel with various wooden sculptures, furniture, and scrap pieces of building material.

In the county’s eyes, Steve’s memorial is a six-acre trash heap—which runs afoul of zoning regulations.

The county served Bedigian with a civil lawsuit for violating the ban on collecting rubbish on residential parcels.

Steve says he’s not going to clean it up because if he does, the county will just come after him for violating the camping ban.

That’s true, according to county development director Sheila Cross.

“Zoning exists for a reason. It's to ensure compatibility,” Cross said.

A BIGGER ISSUE

Cross says this is a bigger problem than one man’s off-grid lifestyle.

Park County has seen an influx of people start camping on cheap plots that are supposed to be for people building single family homes.

“I would say it's one of the toughest issues that we've dealt with,” Cross said. “There's so much controversy. And the county wanted to do the right thing for everybody. But it's sometimes impossible to do that.”

After a long debate, the county passed tougher regulations this year against camping on residential land to protect people building homes that are up to code.

The county also says campers don’t have proper sewage or septic systems, which poses a potential threat to water supplies in the area.

A soil scientist tells 9NEWS it’s unlikely, but possible, for water contamination to occur from one man’s waste—depending on soil conditions.

Bedigian doubts he’s doing much harm, citing the countless cow pies on ranches in the same valley he lives in.

In any event, the county sent 160 letters to campers warning them they need to comply with the zoning rules or risk being forced off their land.

Some are cooperating, and Cross says the county has worked out agreements to improve conditions on parcels owned by people who are cooperative.

“YOU CAN TAKE MY CORPSE”

Bedigian is not cooperating. He plans to fight the county’s actions.

“You can take my corpse from Sgt. Mikes but you will not take my freedom from me,” Bedigian said.

If the county wins in court, it could very well do what it’s done before on other plots—foreclose on Bedigian's land and sell it to cover the cost of cleaning it up.

But in Steve’s eyes, he owns this land. And it's where he wants to die.

“I have two untreated cancer issues. Colon and melanoma,” Bedigian said.

When confronted with a sympathetic response he replied, “Don't be. It's not a big deal.”

What is a big deal to Steve, however filthy and weird it seems to anyone else, is keeping his little scrap of heaven-- off the grid, In South Park.

9NEWS researcher Anna Staver contributed to this report. Steve Bedigian asked us to share his Facebook (or as he calls it: Phoney-book,) page as a point of contact for other concerned off-gridders.

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