The State of Jefferson


Last year a neighbor began flying a State of Jefferson flag on the side of his house that faces mine. I had no idea what it represented, so I looked it up. Short version: the 23 rural northern counties of California want to break away from the rest of the state so they can do their own thing. The movement to create the State of Jefferson actually began in 1941 and was originally meant to include a number of counties in southern Oregon looking to secede from the urban centers of that state too. Personally, I say cut them all loose. Let Jefferson flourish as a tax free regulation free paradise unfettered by city people. Jefferson could be the ultimate Hippie Red Neck Republic and it could actually work. I might even want to live there someday seeing as I’m half Hippie and half Red Neck myself. Granola Shotgun.

The State of Jefferson

But there’s a problem. My neighbor’s house is 48 miles too far south to ever be included in Jefferson since the Mendocino county line (the nearest county to qualify as part of the proposed state) is an hour drive away through the forest and hills. So… is my neighbor planning to move or does he expect his little tract house to be a remote protectorate like Guam?

The State of Jefferson hits on two enduring American narratives when it comes to political representation, taxes and regulations. One is that individuals have an unfettered right to control their own private property and participate freely in supply-and-demand capitalism with absolute minimal government interference. The other is that existing property owners have a right, as well as a moral obligation, to preserve the existing arrangements by legally restricting what others are permitted to do. These two contradictory concepts are continuously cherry picked in odd combinations by people of all political stripes.

Right around the time the Jefferson flag was raised my neighbor and I had a few minor disagreements. I continue to like him and maintain a live-and-let live attitude. But he’s become increasingly hostile toward me. For example, my house had just been vacated as my tenants returned to their native Canada. I’m in the habit of upgrading the property in between renters and my neighbor knew I was about to tinker with the place again. This time it was replacement windows for the bedrooms and a new deck. He asked if he could do the work. He didn’t say it in so many words, but he needed the extra income. I could have told him the truth. His house looks like it was cobbled together with scraps by an aging stoner musician and I was going for something slightly different. But that would have been incendiary. Instead I was vague and danced around the topic. When an actual contractor arrived to do the work he was furious and still hasn’t forgiven me. He was robbed and I lied to him.

Then I had the house tented for termites. The insect problem was minor, but I wanted to nip it in the bud before it got out of control. Some months earlier I had the house professionally treated with a far less invasive method that didn’t quite do the job, so I went with the full fumigation. My Jefferson neighbor was outraged. I was exposing him to toxic gas and I never even bothered to inform him of my activities. Isn’t there a law that forces people to behave in a respectful manner when poisoning the entire neighborhood? When I hired the exterminator I had to sign a stack of papers with lots of legalese about every imaginable contingency. But there was nothing about notifying the neighbors.

The situation was complicated by the timing. He was in the process of evicting a room mate and having a new couple move in while the termite tenting was underway. My neighbor is in his sixties, his income is in decline, he hasn’t saved for retirement, and he’s already tapped the equity in his home several times over the decades. He has debt to service and he needs the rental income, but he genuinely hates having people on his property. So the daily conflicts never end. These room mates come and go pretty quickly. Plus, the space (which is absolutely not an illegal apartment carved out of the lower level of his home) looks like… well, an aging stoner musician cobbled it together from scraps. It is fully legal since there’s no stove. Technically, he’s just renting spare rooms. Fine by me. I have absolutely no objections. He’s providing genuinely affordable market rate housing and plugging a hole in his retirement budget. Mazel tov. But he’s aggrieved by the situation.

Another one of my neighbor’s many complaints concerned his belief that the pyracantha growing on my side of the property line were destroying his fence. It’s more likely that the pyracantha were holding it up. I explained that the small evergreen trees created a privacy screen that benefitted both properties. But he insisted that I cut them down. In the past I had been willing to replace the fence at my expense, but he’s not really accommodating when it comes to his personal sovereignty. I figured sooner or later the fence would fall over and we could deal with it then. After the insecticide tenting drama I decided I’d take down the pyracantha as a peace offering. The next day he came over more angry than ever. He didn’t acknowledge the gesture and immediately began complaining about the next thing on his list.

Some years ago I put up a hog panel fence along my driveway. My goal has never been to maintain a pristine Better Homes and Gardens landscape. It doesn’t make sense to try and keep a lush green lawn in a region where it doesn’t rain for months (or sometimes years) at a time. And if I’m going to have shrubbery it may as well produce fruit. I want a highly productive garden that generates lots of food. The narrow strip along the driveway was planted with a dozen dwarf fruit trees and berry bushes and I continue to add compost and deep mulch to improve the soil and retain moisture. Some people think it’s unruly and trashy. I think it’s beautiful in its ability to feed my tenants and eventually myself. But my neighbor still complains that his landscape was disturbed when the fence posts were dug. Honestly, there never was a “landscape” on his side of the fence. Instead the real issue is that he felt his territorial integrity was invaded. He doesn’t like people pushing on his border. Shrug. The posts are entirely on my side of the property line.

You might think that the proposed State of Jefferson might solve problems for people like my neighbor – or myself – looking for lebensraum. But it’s not that simple. I have friends in a distant county who own a 31 acre parcel in rolling hill country. Their neighbors are continually at war with them over every imaginable perceived slight and incursion. It appears that the people who self select in to a remote lifestyle far from the unwashed masses of city folk are hyper sensitive to just about everything anyone ever does anywhere near them. No amount of physical space can solve that dilemma.

I like my neighbor. I wish him well. I want him to be happy. And I don’t want to vex him with my activities. I chose to buy this modest little house next door to him because I was looking for a future retirement home that avoided the endless rules and restrictions imposed by home owners associations and in-town municipal regulations. I rent the place in the meantime and use the income to incrementally upgrade the property. I’m extremely conscientious of who I rent to because I see the families all around as my present and future neighbors. I thought the trade off was that I would cut my neighbors slack and they would do the same for me. But the State of Jefferson isn’t about personal liberty. It’s an imaginary place where I get mine and no one else exists. Hell is other people.

This piece originally appeared on Granola Shotgun.

John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for, and is a regular contributor to He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.

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Great Post

This is a terrific post, and also discouraging. I myself have dreamed of retiring to something like a "31 acre parcel in rolling hill country," but have often wondered what I could expect, and Sanphillippo's piece provides some unpleasant answers. I would love for Sanphillippo to follow up with a post about the sort of disputes/complaints his friends must endure. I wonder how much it has to do with an "us versus them" mentality: you are an immigrant and they are natives with deep family roots in the area. It all goes to show how rare and difficult it is for people to actually practice a libertarian-type ethics.