Nostalgia and Clutter

This post has little to do with our land project. I’ll sort of get there by the end.

I pre-ordered an HTC Vive. If you don’t know what they are, they’re a virtual reality game system that just came out a few weeks ago. There are three major VR devices coming out this year: HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Playstation VR. I pre-ordered a bit late, so I didn’t make the first wave of shipments. Two nights ago I got the e-mail that warns you your credit card will be charged for the system. It’s a tease for the upcoming charge and delivery. The internet says this means it could be three days away or two weeks away. What it means is that I really have to get my Vive space ready.

The Vive has “room-scale virtual reality” which means that you can walk around with the device on, and it will mimic that movement in your game. This means the larger the space, the better the experience. Unfortunately I have a very cluttered house. So I started clearing out our expected space. This is the guest room, which has also served over the years as my storage room. My husband has his own storage and display areas elsewhere in the house. I decided to pack up as much as I could. Of course this brings me back through memory lane.

Some memories are sweet: aw, look at that ridiculously young photo from when I was a teen. Some memories are embarrassing: oh dear, I can’t read this letter I wrote to my boyfriend when I was 15. I have kept all my old correspondence from when I was young, though I don’t want to read any of it. I have a hematite collection with small pebbles, necklaces, rings, and even a heavy 3″ sphere. All of it carefully boxed away. When we eventually move into our new home I’ll have to figure out how to store everything properly.

Some people don’t mind throwing away their old things from when they’re young. After all, they haven’t needed them in the last twenty years so why keep it for the next twenty? I did let go of many things when my parents sold my childhood home a few years back but I regret not keeping more of those little doodads. Not because I’ll ever need the tiny cup charms that spelled out my name. But because I really enjoy the sensation of remembering. So I shall continue to keep the spoils and tokens of my youth. It’s a bit daunting to think about our new house design and where a dozen boxes of childhood tchothkes will fit. I think it’ll be worth it to me though.

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Quick Note

Wanted to share a quick update about the weekend. It was gorgeous outside so we got to spend a lot of time on the land. Justin worked on his fire pit that is nearing completion. I owe you guys a long post about it in the future. I worked on some of the infinite brush and also lazed about. Perfect kind of day for lazing about outside.

I bought one of our friends an air horn for communicating with her husband when he is running a big machine. He seems to have really taken to the air horn though, and was making silly Public Service Announcements at us all afternoon. It was pretty funny. 

We were also testing permethrin treated clothes. We soaked some yard-work-specific clothes, handkerchiefs, and hats in a 0.05% solution of permethrin for two hours, air dried it, then sent it through a light quick wash and dry. Seemed to work fairly well today. Bugs are starting their summer routine and seemed reluctant to get too close to us. Justin and I escaped tick free today. I still think the best strategy is the ol’ socks-over-pant-leg technique. Makes you look ridiculous but has saved me from many enthusiastic ticks. Ticks are an unfortunate part of life in New England with the ever present fear of Lyme disease. Though the vast majority of ticks we’ve spotted have been the dog tick, not the deer tick that can carry Lyme. I’m glad we don’t have many of the other pests found elsewhere in the US. 

Also wanted to finish up with this huge turkey track:

  
Our road is still a dirt path for now. We often find deer, turkey, and coyote tracks along it. This one was striking for how huge it was. Wild turkey sightings are infrequent enough to be entertaining to city dwellers like me. I see them maybe once a month since I’ve been spending more time outside the city. Funny to think how completely foreign wild turkeys must be to many other people, just as their quirky local fauna would be to me.

Hope everyone has a great spring!

-Clara

A Common Purpose

Something I haven’t written about much is our plans to create an intentional community on the land. Wikipedia offers up this definition:

An intentional community is a planned residential community designed from the start to have a high degree of social cohesion and teamwork. The members of an intentional community typically hold a common social, political, religious, or spiritual vision and often follow an alternative lifestyle.

The whole project started out as a way for my friend and me to be neighbors. He ended up buying a ready-made farm down the road but we will still be involved in his projects and vice versa. However, two other couples will be sharing the land with us. We are making specific decisions to both combine our resources but also live independently from each other. Many towns don’t support easy communal living and specifically zone against multifamily structures. This was okay for us because we wanted to have separate financial stakes in the community. I have functioned as the financial coordinator: purchasing and organizing the land to support several build-able lots adjacent to each other. Once the road is complete I will sell two lots at cost to the two couples. One of the individuals has been instrumental in constructing the private road. Everyone has been pitching in where they can. Once the road is complete each of us will build our own homes. I expect that the other two couples will be doing much more of the house construction on their own while we will be working with a builder. I know having three separate houses for six people is wasteful but we each have fairly different needs and want to maintain our own spaces.

Here are some of our current plans for resource sharing:

  • Vegetable garden on my field (best sun, already cleared)
  • Chicken coop attached to the garden
  • Additional field (no house on that lot) available for future cultivation
  • Shared hiking paths through all the lots
  • Skills: woodworking, carpentry, technical, business, artistry, etc
  • One big media room in one home
  • Shared tools and machinery
  • Fire pit in one yard
  • Pizza oven in another
  • Communal root cellar
  • Hardworking help for everyone’s hobbies and projects

It takes a lot of trust and shared expectations. I know many people worry on our behalf about our future. But it’s honestly low-risk because of the individual lots. If we ever part ways in the future, no one is going to be kicked out of their home. We feel we’ve made some good decisions with regard to temperament and friendship. This is family you choose.

-Clara

Battling the Brush

Now that I’ve discussed some of the major hurdles with the land (buying it, planning board meetings, road construction, architects), I wanted to talk about the land itself. This post will focus on the overgrowth that has run amok on the property. Prior to our purchase, the previous owners were not using it for much. There was some haying and at one point the field served as a horse pasture. There had been some lumber harvesting in the past and an attempt to grow Christmas trees I believe. Unfortunately much of the land had grown wild.

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Ferns on our “path”

Once summer arrived it became very difficult to traverse the so-called paths that skirted the perimeter of the woods. Going walking with a pair of loppers was a wise precaution. We could see massive poison ivy vines climbing the trees that were wider than a soda can. Grape vines, wild raspberry bushes, multiflora rose, and bittersweet had spread out through the forest along with other unnamed thorny plant-beasts.

We started to pick specific areas adjacent to our open field within which to spend our clearing time. One particular spot held an old stone wall. We have many stone walls along our properties. Some clearly mark out the boundaries of the property while others hold no current use. One of the nearby stone walls had been overtaken:

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Overgrown!

You might have some trouble seeing the stone wall in there. One of the satisfying parts of clearing brush is when you are able to clip them close to the ground and pull out entire bushes at a time. We haven’t decided how to keep them from growing back though, so we expect to have to battle it out for a few years until they give up. We are hesitant to use any pesticide and root-digging is quite an endeavor.

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Hello in there

We kept at it until we actually reached quite a respectable stage:

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Take that, weeds!

As awesome as it is to complete such projects it’s a bit daunting to realize that we need to replicate this process a hundred times to reach this kind of result all across our property. “Work of a lifetime,” is an oft repeated phrase.

Here is another similar clearing project. This one was particularly cool because we wanted access to the old hand dug well on the property. I used a shovel as a rough comparison device across photos:

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There’s a well in there

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Partway through

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Now you can see the rocks that cover the well

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Mostly cleared!

We measured the well depth by using a sea retrieval magnet on rope. We didn’t grab anything magnetic from the bottom of the well and presumably there’s not much down there. We estimated the depth to be 33 feet. The previous owner told us that it has never been dry that he recalls though it can get very low in August. It’s covered with a very heavy stone:

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Well entrance

Once you heave that rock away you can see a very cool hand dug well. We haven’t figured out an easy way to access the water. I considered a hand pump but the effort one would expend to draw up a barrel of water seemed impractical. We don’t have electricity so it would have to utilize a battery. Since none of us have a background in getting something like this functional we haven’t solved it yet. One day it would be great to use it for agriculture, especially on the further field.

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Water level in end of April

Our progress in clearing brush continues on. Sometimes one of us has a particular hankering to improve a specific area so we struggle against it for a couple afternoons. Usually I’m dreaming of how a backhoe could do it in 1/10th the time. But even with the countless thorns attacking us it’s a fun way to get to know the land.

-Clara

Architect Adventures (part 1)

Before we actually chose the land I wanted to work with an architect. The hope was that the architect could weigh in on land options and site orientation. My husband and I have strong aesthetic tastes and wanted a home that really matched our sense of style (okay his sense of style. I’m not known for having style). I also feel strongly about green building design. I’ve been an avid reader of The Green Building Advisor which posts articles about sensible energy design. There are a lot of ways to go about it, from LEED certification or Passivhaus certification to Net Zero goals. So I called a few architects with those ideas in mind.

You find out quickly that architects are expensive. Their usual going rate is approximately 10% of the final house cost. Just… think about that. Remember that custom houses are frequently on the high end of costs and you’re looking at tens of thousands of dollars. But we knew this was what we wanted to do instead of utilizing a house kit or stock house plans or builder plans.

We chose a lovely architect. He’s amiable, calm, and thoughtful. He’s also old school and draws actual blueprints still. This was endearing to us. We agreed to work together and he actually visited both our house and the land to get a sense of how we live, our space requirements, and how the house might fit onto the land. Really incredible service.

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Future house site toward the back left before the tree line

He started coming up with plans. They were nice but not quite what we wanted. I don’t blame him fully for this. I think we were having a lot of trouble balancing quality of materials, size of the house, budget, and green energy design. There are a lot of things that give a house character but create energy loss like heated space above unheated space, multiple angles in the floor plan, and excessive windows. Other things are beautiful but very expensive like stonework, turrets, or steep roof pitches. And other items were on my avoid-list because of an increased risk of structural problems like complicated roof lines and bay windows.

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The first drawing provided on a beautiful blueprint

We went through several house styles and settled on one we liked best. The flow of the house was good and we liked the size and feel of the rooms in the design. I had reservations about the energy design of it but was willing to keep going with it. We made changes and he dutifully incorporated what we wanted while setting limits when he thought we were making the wrong choice. He made window schedules and detailed the door frames. We were… mostly pleased. There was still this nagging feeling that it wasn’t quite what we wanted.

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Justin tried to make it more fanciful

We had a few of these crises during the project and had chosen to keep going forward. I felt that it was due to the medium of the project (two dimensional paper) that made it difficult for me to love it. Justin even made a model out of foamboard and cardboard so we could visualize the final design. We discussed siding colors. We worked with our architect from start to finish over about 18 months at a slow pace meeting once every month or two. We finally got to the point where we could ask for bids. Even though I had gotten to the point of realization that this house was not the one we wanted to build, I felt it was important to get through the bid process to know what it would have cost.

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Justin’s model of the front side with a TARDIS for scale

I tried to get a bid from three companies. I actually never heard back from one to schedule with them to look at the plans, a second company looked at the plans but never gave us a quote, and the third one did quote us a rough estimate. Without the site work, septic, and well, the quote was actually quite reasonable. It just wasn’t the house we wanted.

I felt bad about having spent all that time with no tangible result. I do feel it was a really useful process for us but it hurts to spend that kind of money without the design of your dreams. We paid the architect fully during the project for his time and hopefully he felt he was appropriate compensated. I did chicken out and make Justin speak with him about not building the house. He told Justin he knew we were hesitating and we were making the right choice not to follow through with it. I owe him a drink and a chat one day.

So we walked away from it. We regrouped and thought about what we wanted. We went back to looking at stock plans and house kits and timber frame homes etc. I was tentatively interested in a stock plan but it seemed like giving up on something close to our hearts.

In December of 2015 we started a new search for a new architect. I intentionally decided not to let them know that we had worked with a previous architect unsuccessfully. I felt like it was the kind of thing that would scare off a second architect. I didn’t want them wondering if we were unworkable. I know there are definitely benefits to being up front about it though. We agreed to approach this architect very differently than our first. This time we have very strong ideas and came with a specific vision. We’re only a couple months into working with the new architect but we’re feeling optimistic. For the first time we’re really excited about the design.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

-Clara

 

Building a Road (part 1)

I wish I could tell you that building a road was a piece of cake. But it ended up being really complicated. There are a lot of photos in this one which will hopefully give you a sense of the scale of this project.

Our friend who will eventually purchase the 2 acre has experience building roads. Not quite this long or for a residential project, but he has the background knowledge. So he has been spearheading the effort. Our hope is to minimize our expenses on this part of the project. It’s a lengthy road and the engineers were estimating that off-the-cuff they wouldn’t be surprised if it cost up to 200k. Clearly not in our preferred budget.

In order to start the road we had to meet with the Highway Superintendent, the Town Planner, and the Town Engineer. That was a good meeting to review the requirements for the road and when the engineer has to inspect the process. Then we had to get a Driveway Permit. This is an irony because the whole time we were getting the subdivision approved they reminded us under-no-uncertain-terms that this was not the same as a Common Driveway. The Driveway Permit actually delayed us a number of months because it ended up being a bit complicated getting all the elements requested on the permit. But we were successful and moved forward!

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Coiled fencing for salvage

Some of the preparation for the private road we did by hand. There was an old wire fence along one side of the edge and brush we cleared by hand to access trees for the chainsaw. The chainsaw took care of many of the medium-to-large trees. Along with a wheelbarrow that found itself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Poor wheelbarrow. We also processed all the fallen trees by removing the limbs and gathering the branches. This will let us cut and season the wood for home heating in the future. Some of the brush was buried in non-road areas, others were left in big piles for us to handle later.

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Our rented excavator early in the process

My friend brought in an excavator to do much of the grunt work. He pulled down an impressive swath of brush and trees for the road, keeping the center line markers in place. The loam was set aside for future use, and large rocks were moved to the side. Some of the trees were too close to the road for him to take down so we brought in a crew to cut the trees carefully. Had to pay out of pocket but we didn’t have to worry about accidentally damaging the main road or power lines.

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Pulling up trees and brush!

It’s amazing what an excavator and a skilled operator can do. During weekends in the summer and fall of 2015 he cleared the road and the hammerhead end of the road of debris. It’s a shocking difference to the overgrown mess we were used to.

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The stakes mark the center of the road

Then we hit a bit of a delay. The trees at the road were on a rock ledge. That same rock ledge we had to redraw the road directly through during the planning board meetings. We had hoped that the rocks would fissure easily but they proved too solid. That’s New England granite for you. We had to get some estimates for blasting the rock. An attempt with a hammer didn’t get very far and the rock blasting companies agreed that it wasn’t a sure thing to go in with a bigger hammer. It was an additional $15k in expenses but unavoidable. I’ll write a separate blog post about how the rock blasting is done. It’s pretty cool!

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Post blast

We are still waiting to move all that rubble away. I am worried that there are still some pieces of ledge higher than our road grade that will need to be taken care of. That would mean talking to the rock blasting company again months after the job (the rubble has been stalled due to the winter season and rainy spring) to see what they can do for us. But that’s where we are for now.

The plan is for the rubble to be cleared away and everything brought to subgrade elevation. Then we’ll be ready for the gravel and asphalt base. We hope to be finished by the end of the summer but it’s really dependent on my friend’s availability and the weather. Part 2 will have to wait until then!

-Clara

The Planning Board

Once we were tentatively set to purchase the three lots, we had to deal with the retreat lot and subdivision designations. The sellers took on the responsibility of getting the retreat lots approved which is a relatively straight forward matter. Then it was our job to get the subdivision approved. That ended up being a bit lengthy.

Our first meeting was in the beginning of May in 2014 where the engineer presented a preliminary sketch to the board to get their thoughts on it. The planning board is composed of about six members. This was almost two years ago so I am trying to recall how many votes we needed, but I think we had 1 abstain from the proceedings (he’s a neighbor) and needed 3 of the remaining 5 to approve. Maybe it was 4 of 5? Anyway…

In the beginning of June we returned with our engineer’s subdivision plans. The board had plenty of questions and concerns. They didn’t like how our initial road met the main road (the angle was deemed too sharp), the slope was too high (10 degrees, which is fairly steep), and they wanted more gravel base. A subdivision according to the bylaws requires a great deal of fancy work: 18 inches of gravel base, granite curbing, etc. We were asking to have certain parts of it waived because the bylaws were intended to cover the most complex of subdivisions. Ours was tiny in comparison. They also wanted hydrology numbers for runoff, were considering demanding a 20 foot wide road instead of 18 feet, had some concerns with the name of the road due to possible confusion with similar sounding names, and wanted us to double check that our hammer head length was sufficient.

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Private road along an old logging path

We went back at the next board meeting with most of the changes requested, but we still wanted 12 inches of gravel base instead of 18. Two of the board members were missing, so there were only 3 eligible to vote. One of the three voting members was clear that he wasn’t going to approve of 12 inches. The difference could add tens of thousands of dollars to the project price! We weren’t convinced that the 18″ was necessary. So we passed on voting that night and returned to the next meeting three weeks later.

At this point it was early July but we got the subdivision approved. We altered the path of the road to accommodate a less steep slope and better angle meeting the road. We knew this would cause us some later trouble with rock because the new road angle meant going straight through probable ledge. But there wasn’t any way around that. We did get them to agree to an 18 foot wide road instead of the 26 foot official requirement. We agreed on 12 inches of gravel base. There’s a condition that if it’s found that there is noticeable runoff being added to the road in the winter as ice sheeting, we’d have to mitigate that. Another condition of the subdivision is that I cannot sell the two lots contained within it until I finish the road.

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Those pesky rocks where our private road would cut through

Whew. Well with that, we entered the 20 day appeal period. Hilariously there was one last incident. The surveyor for the town realized that there was a point on our lot where the private road runs that is only 49.97 feet wide. Because subdivision roads require a 50 foot width this requires a waiver for the subdivision. We had to go back in front of the planning board in mid-August to get this fixed! To give you some perspective, that is approximately one-third of an inch or less than one centimeter. Fortunately the planning board passed this without too much issue.

Planning boards. They asked me to run for a position on the board. I was flattered by their suggestion but it wouldn’t work in my schedule. Maybe in the future. I did get to chat with them often after the meetings. One of them owns the biggest farm in town. Another owns a local bar in Worcester that’s quite popular with the college students. I’ve been meaning to go but haven’t gone yet. Maybe this summer!

-Clara

38+ Acres

Originally I thought the land was a bit further away than I liked. It’s about 20 minutes south of where we currently live in central MA. The seller had posted two adjacent lots: 15 acres and 16 acres. They’re Retreat Lots which means that they don’t have the normal required road frontage. Some towns allow for retreat lots with less road frontage in exchange for a larger lot requirement. This town requires 250 feet of road frontage with 80,000 minimum square footage (a little under 2 acres). But a retreat lot needs only 50 feet of road frontage in exchange for having an increased minimum of 240,000 square footage. This means these two parcels had small house lots in front of them. Not ideal but it’s a common way to find large lots.

So we chose to take a look at these paired parcels. At the time I was looking for at least three contiguous lots so I wasn’t sure we’d be interested. But coincidentally the owner had another 7.5 acre lot adjacent that he was considering selling as well. His family had owned a huge original area (probably 70 acres all-told) that had been divided up over the years. Several small adjacent parcels had gone to family members, another parcel across the street belonged to the sister co-owner, another parcel had sold decades ago, and we had just missed out on a 2 acre parcel in front of the 15 acre lot. I hinted to the owner that I was interested in the 7.5 acre parcel as well. Fortunately he was interested in selling.

Around this time I got very familiar with the town’s zoning bylaws. Each town has a set of bylaws that describe the allowed usage of land, road frontage requirements, permitting, signage, in-law use, etc. This is where questions like “Can I have chickens in my backyard?” get answered. Because I had read the bylaws carefully I knew that the 7.5 acre lot was going to cause us some difficulties. You see, retreat lots can’t exist too close to another retreat lot. The 7.5 acre was too close to the 16 acre neighbor to qualify. The answer to this problem was surprising. We had to divide it into two lots in order to build on it!

This required engineers to draw up the plans for a Subdivision. They had to survey the property where we were splitting it up, draft a private road, and submit it to the planning board. This added $13,000 to the cost of the property but it was a necessary evil. We didn’t know exactly how much it would cost to get the subdivision approved but had agreed with the sellers that we’d cover it. I’ll write a separate blog post about the planning board meetings. But ultimately it was approved and we purchased all three parcels: the 15 acre, the 16 acre, and the soon-to-be-split 7.5 acre. The 7.5 acre property became a private road, a 2 acre property, and a 4.5 acre property. So we became in possession of four build-able lots, three of which will be serviced by the private road.

Part of this process required naming the road. Some of the fun puns were vetoed (Food Court, Warp Drive, Wit’s End) and we agreed for something more subtle.

It all seemed to work out in the end. I think we would have made a few different decisions were we aware of all the logistics from the beginning. The 16 acre lot could have become part of the subdivision instead of a retreat lot which would have afforded us some future flexibility. The 15 acre lot could have been split into a 6 acre and a 9 acre back-lot in case we ever wanted to sell the 6 acre beyond our friend-group. But ultimately it will still be awesome.

Screen Shot 2016-04-03 at 6.13.14 PM Here is an overview of the property. Starting from the bottom, #44 is the 15 acre, #91 is the 16 acre, #90 is the 4.5 acre, #89 is the 2 acre, and #88 is our future subdivision road.

-Clara

The Search

Really this started a long time ago with an idea between a friend and myself. For years we’ve been talking about living next to each other and sharing resources. We’re both technology and gaming geeks and he’s interested in gardening. Neither of us have kids (we both have significant others), so this was an idea for how to create our own community.

Then in the fall of 2013, Justin and I were talking to two of our other friends who had a similar vision. Living next to friends and sharing resources. Since we were already thinking about how to move out of our city into a more rural environment, it started our gears moving. We had been looking a bit into houses with land attached (5+ acres) but it’s very hard to find homes where you can build additional homes next door. Developments tend to use very small lots to divvy up the property. It was time to look at raw land.

My realtor thought we were on a wild goose chase because it’s so hard to find contiguous lots. You learn pretty quickly that location dictates the price of land. We wanted to live relatively close to the urban life. Just not in our backyard. But looking in the Metrowest area (within a commuter’s drive to Boston) means literally $40,000/acre in Bolton to $200,000/acre in Dover. Clearly out of our budget. We didn’t want to live in areas like North Brookfield either, where it’s about $5,000/acre but you’re a 30 minute drive just to reach the Mass Pike. The sweet spot ended up being in south Central MA. This provided us close travel to Providence (30 minutes), Worcester (20 minutes), and Boston (60 minutes).

We looked at many parcels of land in that general geographic area. There are a surprising variety of reasons not to buy particular parcels. We filtered out a lot of properties for the following reasons:

  • Power line easements through the property
  • Next to a highway or near a highway, or just plain noisy
  • Next to a quarry
  • Used to be a junkyard
  • Really weirdly shaped or incredibly narrow
  • Next to an outdoor rifle range
  • On a 1% chance flood plain zone
  • Can’t divide the property into multiple build-able lots
  • Previous owner was charged for attempted murder of his wife

Yeah the last one sounds a bit crazy. The court system was selling off his property to pay off the settlement for his case. The land had a few other reasons to pass on it (could hear the highway and a very narrow shape), but we weren’t excited to own that bit of history.

I learned how to use GIS (Geographic Information System) maps for Massachusetts (Oliver – Mass GIS) and each town in which the land was located. There is a fascinating amount of information that’s publicly available regarding land. We could review the topography, agricultural soil distributions, flood plains, endangered species areas, and wetlands demarcations. There are even well water search engines (Mass DEP Well Drilling).

But finally, we found our parcel. It’s big enough for its own blog post 😉

-Clara

Introducing this blog

Hello! I figure it’s important to post a bit about what in the world this blog is for. In January of 2014, my husband and I saw an awesome piece of property in central Massachusetts. We decided to buy it. It ended up being really complicated. I figure it might be nice to document that process all the way through. I’ll have to catch you guys up a lot to cover the last two years. But eventually we’ll be caught up to the present moment and I’ll be able to post as things happen. Because they’re still happening.

The glimpse of where we are now: we are working with our second architect for house plans. We’re feeling super optimistic and awesome about this architect. The subdivision road is partly done, but the hope is to finish it this summer. Between January 2014 and now, we have had to handle: learning the nuances of buying raw land, meeting with the town planning board, creating a subdivision, building a subdivision road, considering chicken coops and vegetable gardens, building a fire pit, fun with trail cameras, dealing with spring flooding on hiking paths, way more thorns than anyone would want, and our friends buying their own farm eight miles down the road.

Whew. There’s a lot to catch you up on. The photo above is one of the first pictures I took of our eventually-to-be property. There will be plenty more photos to come.

-Clara