The Code of the West was first chronicled by the famous western writer, Zane Grey. The men and women who came to this part of the country during the westward expansion of the United States were bound by an unwritten code of conduct. The values of integrity and self reliance guided their decisions, actions and interactions. In keeping with that spirit, we offer this information to help the citizens of Cochise County who wish to follow in the footsteps of those rugged individualists by living outside city limits.
“CODE” OF COCHISE
Welcome to Cochise County. Cochise County was created in February of 1881 and was named after the famed Apache Chief, Cochise. It lies in the southeast corner of the State of Arizona and has a land area of more than 4 million acres, an area larger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. This area is one of the most beautiful and diverse areas in the United States. Residents and tourists alike come here for the rich history, open lands and unique cultural mix. Our landscape combines growing urban areas such as Sierra Vista and Benson with thriving rural unincorporated communities such as Palominas and Whetstone and large cattle ranches and agricultural farms passed through generations of southern Arizonans. This unique corner of the state boasts a wealth of scenic and natural resources and a people whose “way of life” has thrived on those resources. Many new property owners move to the unincorporated or “rural” areas for a new life outside of large metropolitan areas without the knowledge that life in a largely rural county is different from life in the city. Nature, lifestyles, property access and access to resources is different than in a metropolitan area which can be confusing and even frustrating to new property owners. Access to services is not as readily available and there are different legal and regulatory requirements when building, traveling and living in a rural area. To that end, we are providing you with the following information to help you make an educated and informed decision to purchase rural land.
Many issues can affect your decision to purchase a piece of property. It is important to research these items prior to your purchase.
There are as many types of living structures in Cochise County as there are people who live in them. Clusters of mobile and manufactured homes can be found near stucco one and two-story site built family homes in the same region. “New construction” can compete with structures built many decades earlier. In recent years, the rural areas of Cochise County have peaked interest in future property owners wanting to build to “get away from it all” as well as developers wanting to build entire subdivisions for those wanting to get away.
2.1 - Residential zoning districts protect areas where people live; and they allow residential uses as a right so long as zoning code requirements are met, such as setbacks from the property line or lot sizes. An example of a common residential zone in Cochise County is RU-4 which is a rural designation allowing one house per 4 acres, or 1 house per acres if it is a conservation subdivision.
2.2 - County zoning regulations include various zoning districts where commercial and industrial uses are allowed so long as a building or use permit is obtained. Maps showing the districts are available at the Planning Department. These districts define areas where business, warehouses and factories can be operated with minimum impact upon residential areas. Non-residential uses such as churches, which are permitted in residential neighborhoods, must also obtain a non-residential permit.
2.3 - Special uses are activities which, because of their unique characteristics, potentially could generate greater impacts than uses permitted in a zoning district. Due to these greater impacts, special uses must be reviewed and acted up by the Planning and Zoning Commission. Examples include bed & breakfast inns, fire arms ranges or RV parks
2.4 - Whether you want to construct a single family home, a guest house, or open a store, Cochise County does require Building/Use Permits for residential, accessory and commercial structures and uses. The permitting process also includes the permitting of:
- Septic system permits
- Right-of-way permits (for driveways or private roads connecting to county-maintained roads)
- Floodplain use permits
- Permits for the clearing of one or more acre of land
2.5 - The County has adopted the Cochise County Building Safety Code for the unincorporated areas of the County. Maps and more information can be found on the County website.
2.6 - Building permits are required in all unincorporated areas of the County to construct, enlarge, alter, repair, move, demolish, or change the occupancy of a building or structure or to erect, install, enlarge, alter, repair, remove, convert or replace any electrical, gas, mechanical, or plumbing system regulated by the code.
2.7 - The only way to verify the location of property lines is by having a Registered Land Surveyor mark the property corners. Before applying for a building permit, it is the property owner's responsibility to accurately identify property lines.
2.8 - The surrounding properties will probably not remain as they are indefinitely and the view from your property may change. You can check with the Cochise County Planning Division to find out how the properties are zoned and to see what future developments may be in the planning stages.
2.9 - Arizona has an Open Range Law. This means that, if you do not want cattle, sheep, or other livestock on your property, it is your responsibility to fence them out. It is not the responsibility of the rancher to keep his/her livestock off your property. Under Arizona Law, fences are considered a means to keep out rather than keep in. As homes spring up next to existing homesteads, new neighbors may not know actual property boundaries or actual access to their property. Sometimes fences and/or gates are erected that not only keep out future trespassers but also their neighbors' access to their own property!There is one exception to this rule and it’s in a no-fence district created years ago north of Willcox. In that district ONLY, ranchers are required to fence their cattle in. Maps of this district can be obtained from the Planning Department. It is recommended to contact the Highway and Floodplain Department to define actual access to your property before erecting fences and gates.
2.10 - By state law, septic systems and other on-site wastewater systems must be designed by a certified site investigator or an Arizona-registered professional engineer, geologist or sanitarian prior to the permit application. Site investigation and system design application are available online or at Cochise County Environmental Health Division offices. Applications must be submitted to the Cochise County Planning and Zoning Department and approved by the Environmental Health Division BEFORE the system is constructed.
2.11 - Septic inspections are conducted by the County Environmental Health Division. They must be contacted at least 5 working days prior to beginning construction to arrange for inspections.
2.12 - Many subdivisions and individual parcels have covenants and/or deed restrictions that limit the use of the property. These documents are private agreements and are not enforceable by the County. It is important to obtain a copy of the covenants/deed restrictions (or verify that there are none), and determine if you can live with the rules.
2.13 - Homeowners associations typically establish by-laws that outline how the organization operates, and they may set monthly or annual dues. In some cases, they also enforce CC&Rs. You may be legally required to join the association, which often takes care of common elements, roads, open space, etc.
2.14 - The seemingly endless skies of Arizona become very dark and filled with stars when the sun sets. The Cochise County Light Pollution Code is written for the purpose of achieving effective and efficient lighting, while preserving the safety, security and well-being of persons engaged in outdoor nighttime activities. The code also intends to encourage enjoyment of the dark night skies and encourage lighting practices that will minimize man-made light pollution effects of sky-glow, glare and light trespass. For information on appropriate lighting on your property, contact the County Planning Department at 520-432-9240 or find the details of the Light Pollution Code online at http://cochise.az.gov/cochise_planning_zoning.aspx?id=476.
Gravel and dirt roads generate dust. If you mind that, you may not want to be in an area which is accessible only by gravel or dirt roads, and for which no paving is planned. If you have a question about whether roads are scheduled for improvement, check with the subdivision property owners’ association, or with the Cochise County.
3.1 - ROAD MAINTENANCE – A rude awakening to new residents is the teeth-jarring, mud-rutted, wash board, dusty, dusty roads in rural Arizona. Roads in the County system are maintained year round. However, maintenance may only occur every few months, depending on resources such as staff, equipment, project schedules and funding.
3.2 – Currently Cochise County maintains 1,421 roads which includes 617 “dirt” roads and 804 chip-sealed roads. Depending on the road and its status, maintenance schedules vary. The County does not maintain private roads. Many rural properties are served by private roads or public non-maintained roads, which are typically maintained by private road associations or individuals. Some private roads are not maintained on a regular basis. It is very important to know if your road was properly constructed, what type of maintenance to expect, and who will maintain it.
3.3 - PAVING - If an existing road is unpaved, it is highly unlikely that Cochise County will pave it in the foreseeable future. If the seller of any property indicates that the road will be paved-beware! Contact Cochise County Highway and Floodplain to verify the status of the road and any future plans for the road.
3.4 - ROAD IMPROVEMENT DISTRICTS - Some rural communities have formed improvement districts to pave their roads, or to reduce dusty conditions. Property owners are assessed their portion of the initial cost as well as future maintenance costs, which can be very expensive. For more information, contact the Special Districts Coordinator.
3.5 - VEHICLE "WEAR AND TEAR" - Because unpaved roads are typically rough, and slippery in wet weather vehicle maintenance costs may increase when you regularly travel on these roads.
3.6 - CONSTRUCTION COSTS/DELAYS - It may be more expensive to build a residence in a rural area, due to higher material delivery fees. Some large construction vehicles encounter problems navigating narrow roads, and County building inspectors travel to some remote areas only once a week, which can cause construction delays.
3.7 - EXTREME WEATHER DRIVING - In extreme weather conditions, roads (including County maintained roads) can become impassable. You may need a four wheel-drive vehicle and/or chains for all four tires to travel safely during storms, which can last for several days. ACCESS TO YOUR PROPERTY The fact that you can drive to your property does not guarantee that you, your guests, or emergency vehicles will have the same level of access at all times. Consider the following.
3.8 - EMERGENCY RESPONSE - Response times by law enforcement, fire suppression and medical emergency services may vary-due, in part, to the County’s geography, road conditions in bad weather and inability to locate residences. Emergency response to outlying areas can also be very expensive.
3.9 - If the property you purchase is not in an existing Fire District, which can be the case in rural districts, you could be billed a substantial amount for the cost of a response to a fire or medical emergency. It would be worthwhile to contact various emergency service providers in your area before you buy land. Also helpful is a clearly marked residence with the correct address number. Contact the Planning Department Rural Address Division for more information.
3.10 - LEGAL ACCESS - There can be problems with the legal aspects of access, especially if you have access across someone else’s property.
3.11 - Make sure you have legal easements if you need them (i.e. deeded, not just verbal). You may want to get legal advice if you have questions regarding your own access to a County road, state or federal highway. The existence of an unobstructed road to your property does not guarantee the road will remain open in the future or that you will have unlimited access.
3.12 - Existing easements on your property may require you to allow construction of roads, power lines, water lines, sewer lines, etc., across your land. These existing easements may also prevent you from building your residence, accessory buildings, or fences where you want to locate them. All legally recorded easements must be disclosed in your title report. Check with your real estate agent, title company, or the Cochise County Recorder’s Office to identify all existing recorded easements.
3.13 - DRIVEWAYS - If your new driveway or new private road accesses a County road, you will need a Right-of-Way Permit from the Highway & Floodplain Department. Many large construction vehicles cannot navigate small, narrow and primitive roads. If you plan to build, check out construction access. Private driveways should be wide and sturdy enough to support either emergency or construction vehicles.
3.14 - STORMWATER. The monsoon season in Cochise County typically occurs from early summer into early fall of each year. Heavy rains can cause flooding of roadways, ditches, washes, and properties. This flooding can make roads hazardous for travel until they dry. Do not attempt to cross a flooded roadway and always obey the posted warning signs when approaching a flooded area.
3.15 - WATERCOURSE – Watercourses (river, creek, stream, wash, arroyo, channel, etc.) transport stormwater from the higher elevations to the lower elevations and will follow natural drainage features or watercourses. Any alteration of these watercourses can affect the normal flow patterns of stormwater and cause flooding of properties and roadways. Arizona State statutes prohibit the diversion or obstruction of watercourses if it creates a hazard to life or property. Also be aware that building setbacks from watercourses may be required
3.16 - FLOODPLAINS – Cochise County has numerous areas that fall within Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHA) as designated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). A Floodplain Use Permit, issued with the general building permit, is required for construction within these Special Flood Hazard Areas. Contact the Cochise County Floodplain Department at 520-432-9310 for floodplain, drainage and watercourse information.
Hereford Road Bridge, Palominas
Cochise County is a beautiful, pristine and environmentally sensitive environment. Regulatory, restrictions can be placed upon residents to protect our natural resources. If you choose to live in the rural areas, services may or may not be readily available but at the same time you may be expected to meet certain regulatory requirements to protect the environment.
4.1 - ELECTRIC SERVICE - Electric service is not available to all areas of the County. Because costs to extend power lines can be prohibitive in certain areas, some property owners use a generator or alternative power sources such as solar or wind-powered systems.
There may also be underground trenching costs, material costs, and electrician fees. In some cases, it is necessary to cross your neighbor's property to bring power to your property (either overhead or underground lines). It is important to verify the existence of existing easements, or to obtain the proper easements prior to construction of the power lines. Also, due to ongoing development and limited utility line capacity, electric power that is available today may not be available when you decide to build.
4.2 – WATER - Water is a valuable commodity in Arizona. Cochise County is home to the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area (SPRNCA). Like people, the San Pedro River relies primarily on groundwater to maintain its status as one of the last free-flowing rivers in the southwest. The County works with many groups, including the Upper San Pedro Partnership, residents, businesses, local and state government and others to maintain a sustainable level of water flow for the SPRNCA and ground water supplies for future residents throughout Cochise County.
There are very good reasons to conserve water; it’s just the right thing to do. We live in an arid area. Drought is common and often long-term. Groundwater is not an easily renewable resource. There are several mechanisms for personal water conservation around your property such as water saving appliances and plumbing fixtures, gray water use for outdoor landscaping and planting drought tolerant landscaping. For more information, the County works with the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension’s Water Wise Program. Contact them at (520) 458-8278 Ext: 2141.
4.3 - WELLS – Many rural areas do not have access to a municipal water hookup. Some areas, particularly the unincorporated portions of the county, may be served by small, independent water companies. Depending on how many people would be served, these companies may be regulated by the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ), or if they are small enough, they may have no regulatory oversight. None of these companies are regulated by the county or any other local government. Potential property owners should check with the ACC on the history of the water company serving their area before purchase.
Another water option is to drill an individual well on your property. Drilling and pumping costs can be considerable and, in some cases, prohibitive. The quality and quantity of well water may vary considerably from location to location, and from season to season. Well permits must be obtained from the Arizona Department of Water Resources and the Cochise County Department of Health Environmental Health Division. Wells drilled on five acres or less require County Health Department inspections.
4.4 - SEWER/SEPTIC SERVICE - Sewer service is not available in most rural areas and, if it is, it is generally more expensive to tie into the system than in cities. If sewer service is not available, you will need an approved septic system or on-site wastewater treatment facility. If sewer service IS available in your area, you may be legally required to hook up to the sewer. The type of soil available for a leach field is very important in determining the cost and function of a new septic system.
Arizona state law requires that before a person constructs, remodels, occupies or maintains any dwelling, he must first complete a permit for an individual sewage disposal system. New septic systems must be approved by the Planning and Zoning Department and reviewed and inspected by the County Environmental Health Division.
More information can be found on at http://cochise.az.gov/cochise_health.aspx?id=260.
4.5 - TELEPHONE SERVICE – Cochise County contains seven mountain ranges which can interfere with consistent cellular and wireless transmission. Some areas are considered “black holes” of communication due to the inability for any reception to reach the region. Rural telephone services can range from full telephone service-to cellular phone service only-to no service at all. It may also be difficult to obtain additional telephone lines for fax or computer modem use.
4.6 – REFUSE COLLECTION AND DISPOSAL – Cochise County operates a state-of-the-art solid waste system comprised of a state and federally regulated landfill. Within this system, there are 5 urban and 10 rural transfer stations located throughout the county. Refuse collection services are offered either by municipalities or private companies in the areas of the county with denser population bases. Collection services are not offered in many portions of the county so it is the responsibility of the property owner to properly dispose of waste generated on their property. BURNING OR CREATING A PRIVATE “DUMP” ARE NOT OPTIONS FOR THE PROPERTY OWNER.
Because of logistical challenges with this large rural county, many opportunities to recycle to the degree a metropolitan area enjoys are limited but the Solid Waste Management Department is working with decision-makers and a citizen advisory group to create new recycling options.
4.7 - WILDCAT DUMPING – It is important to know that it is illegal to create your own trash dump, even on your own property. The County has instituted a fee and possible incarceration ordinance for illegal or “wildcat” dumping. To report possible illegal dumping sites, contact the County Solid Waste Department at 520-432-9270.