Sundance Stadtler, left, and neighbor Ryan McPherson work on the foundation of the home Stadtler is building in the desert near San Luis. Stadtler moved to Costilla County to grow marijuana on low-priced desert land. (Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post)
Jun 8, 2015
The Denver Post - SAN LUIS VALLEY — The concrete was soupy, a wet mush unlikely to harden properly, so Sundance Stadtler added sand to the mixture he was pouring into wooden forms to make footers for his new home in Costilla County. Stadtler, a 19-year-old from Vermont, arrived in the San Luis Valley in February with a plan to build a home and grow marijuana legally.
He purchased 5 acres of desert property for $3,250 and set up a tepee for temporary lodging as he began building.
Stadtler is one of a number of people lured to the county in the San Luis Valley by legal marijuana and cheap land.
It is unclear how many people have moved into the sparsely populated expanse of high desert near the New Mexico border since recreational marijuana became legal in the state last year.
But Costilla County issued 209 building permits in 2014, 20 percent higher than the average number issued in previous years.
So far this year, permits issued are on pace to break last year's record, said Mathew Valdez, county land use administrator.
"A lot who come in tell us, 'We love the mountains and the views, but we also want to grow marijuana,' " Valdez said.
Many of the new arrivals are unprepared for life in a harsh landscape where temperatures can tumble to well below zero in the winter, and power, sewer and other infrastructure is nonexistent.
"The land we have is not the ideal place unless you are retired and have the resources to get septic" systems and other infrastructure, said Tommy Vigil, director of the county's Department of Social Services.
Stadtler has done some construction work in the past but had little experience with foundations, he said. A piece of rebar jutted from the hardening concrete next to four dented beer cans.
"I haven't built a house from the foundation up before," Stadtler said.
Many newcomers arrive without any plan to develop the land.
Valdez's office has only one code enforcement officer to keep an eye on buildings and living conditions in the 1,227-square-mile county. The county plans to hire a second person, whose job will be financed through licensing fees generated by the local recreational and medicinal marijuana businesses.
Sometimes a background check on someone who has violated building codes or committed a traffic violation leads to an arrest, said Ben Doon, Costilla County Commission administrator.
Many of the new residents have warrants issued by other states; some have multiple warrants.
The new residents are changing the jail population, Doon said. "There used to be a lot more locals. Now it is probably 10 percent local and 90 percent from outside."
Still, Doon said that as far as local officials are concerned, they're not seeing any spike in the crime rate since newcomers began arriving.
The county's two school districts are struggling to keep up with the population influx.
"Since January, we have had 28 new students coming into Sierra Grande School District, and that is huge for a small district," Doon said. There are about 260 students in the district.
Hygiene is a problem for students who are living in desert hovels where the "toilet is a 5-gallon bucket," and bathing and washing clothes is a challenge, Doon said.
"We do offer showers at times for kids," said Brian Crowther, school superintendent for the county's Centennial School District.
Most of the newcomers are "poor as church mice," Doon said. And although some may come hoping to get into the state's marijuana business, most want to grow for their personal use and be left alone.
Vigil's agency provides assistance to low-income families from the state's Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and other welfare programs.
He usually finds out there are children living in questionable circumstances when teachers or school bus drivers report noticing that a child has worn the same clothing for two weeks or some other irregularity.
"We have to check out the kids and make sure they're getting what they need. For the most part, the kids are being treated well and the parents are doing the best they can," Vigil said.
Helping the new residents is stretching his budget. "We have to do more with less," Vigil said. "We welcome everybody to the county, but being such a small county we have limited resources, and it is taxing to help everybody out."
The county has almost 40,000 vacant, privately owned lots, the highest number in the state, and a population of only 3,700 people.
Land prices start at less than $1,000 an acre.
Zane McDonald, his wife, Samantha, and their four children came to Costilla County from Alabama soon after legal sales of weed began two years ago.
The family built a tiny cabin near the Rio Grande River, along with an attached greenhouse to grow pot plants and vegetables. "I grow what the state allows for two adults," he said.
"We did a lot of research, we asked a lot of questions. We all knew this was going to be a sacrifice, but it was also our last adventure with the kids before they get too cool to hang out with us," McDonald said.