Building a Road (part 4)

Yes, this is still an on-going project! The town engineer did come and approve our subgrade last month. It was fortunate that we had a dump truck delivering construction entrance gravel that day, because we needed to have it drive slowly down the road to prove that the dirt was compacted. I had no worries about the compaction level of the dirt because our friend has been driving up and down it for a year with the excavator and trucks. Passed easily.

But we still don’t have gravel down. Why? Great question. For one thing, the road requires several methods of water management. When you create impervious surfaces (the asphalt) the town requires you to mitigate the additional surface water. Our friend is constructing a swale on one side of the road as well as two retention ponds. Each “pond” serves as a buffer for run-off in case of storms. They are wide and shallow. One is placed at the entrance on the corner of our new road and the existing residential road. The other is at the end of the hammerhead.

Our friend has made great progress in constructing these. It took a lot of dirt to bring the hammerhead-side pond to the right elevation. It’s a good thing we have some dirt and rocks to spare. In order to spare our topsoil (the nutrient rich layer), he dug down and used some of the lower quality soil underneath:


Stealing a bit of fill

Look! It’s where our future vegetable garden will be! Rest assured the quality soil will be placed back at the end.

The other delay has been due to utilities. When you build a subdivision road you are required to place utilities alongside it. Makes sense if you want electricity and internet to reach your home. Your electrical company is the one who designs the plan. You pay them a lot of money to design the utilities trench, then you build it for them. They inspect along the way. At the end you hand over the possession of the trench to them for maintenance in perpetuity. We did not realize how lengthy this process can be. Our electrical company estimates 5 months from initial contact to completion. And since we only contacted them a few weeks ago… you can see how this causes a delay in the road.

We are also contemplating the pros and cons of “aerial” versus “underground.” By default the utilities are supposed to be placed underground in a trench. This is a bit more costly but reduces the likelihood of power outages. Looks nicer, too. However we have a lot of ledge alongside the road where the trench would go. Until we start digging in that area we won’t know how much is composed of massive stubborn granite. We need to talk with the electrical company engineer to discuss how they feel about it. If they believe that aerial will be necessary that means requesting a waiver from the town. Which means meeting with the planning board again. Let’s hope whatever the result is, it’s the best choice for the road and the subdivision. Crosses fingers.

As I said in the last road building post, we needed an extension. That was blissfully easy though. The planning board accepted that we were having delays due to some of the topography (the blasting added a great deal of work) and allowed us a one-year extension. On Friday I picked up the amendment, notarized it, and submitted it at the Registry of Deeds. I certainly hope that’s the only extension we need!


Current status of the road

Oh but one bit of extra bright news in all this. Even though our friend has had to slog through many additional hours over the last month on this project, he found the time to place an additional standing stone around the fire pit. Justin and I helped with placement and shoring it up. We now have seven of eight stones placed! This one has an adorable sitting spot on the right-hand side.


Seventh standing stone

Until next time.



Building a Road (part 3)

Over the last few weekends our friend has moved a great deal of dirt! See Part 1 and Part 2 to get a sense of the change over the last year. He’s been able to work efficiently with the excavator and a dump truck. A friend of his has been driving the dump truck unloading dirt on our adjacent property. See them working on the road:


We hope that in the next couple weeks we’ll be able to get the town engineer to come verify the elevation for us so we can be ready for gravel. So much gravel! I looked at the Covenant again recently to check our dates. We have until September 1st to complete the base coat of the road (they gave us two years). If we think we will be behind schedule we can request an extension from the town planning board. Yep, back to the planning board if we need to! I hope that by the middle of July we’ll have a good sense of whether we’ll need the extension. The top coat can be applied after the homes are complete if it doesn’t take a while.

Here’s a view in the other direction:


Much of the trees and brush on the lefthand side will probably be pulled down. It’s mostly invasive junk plus a couple nice large trees. It would be great if we could keep the trees but it depends on where our driveway ends up. Somewhere over on the left where you see the piles of rocks will be our driveway.

Fortunately we have a lot of spare land to drop our materials.


Each of those smaller dirt piles is a dump truck load of dirt. It’s a lot of dirt. We have some plans for this to be used as fill around the properties. Our friend’s lot will need some build up so that their garage is at the same level as the road. There are also some very deep ruts in the wooded paths from ATVs that would be well served by this dirt. I foresee some fun dirt-filled cart hauling in our future.


Building a Road (Part 2)

Progress is happening! It’s been a little while since I’ve posted, but I have a few planned posts in mind. As I mentioned before, we have a subdivision road to build before we can construct our homes. Our friend is doing the vast majority of the construction for it. Last December we brought a blasting company in to remove the ledge. This weekend our friend was able to clear out almost all the rubble. It’s an impressive series of changes.

Subdivision Before

Entrance to our subdivision off the main road

As you can see, there was a path on the lefthand side going into the property. We weren’t allowed to use that path for two reasons: the slope of the road is too steep for fire trucks, and the angle where it meets the main road is too sharp. We knew that there was ledge to our right-hand side but it was impossible to make the planning board change their mind. We also knew it was for a good reason, even though it was going to cost us more.

Subdivision During

Blasted away the ledge

I wrote about some of the issues with the road and clearing in this post. The rubble had to sit untouched for about six months because winter started soon after the blasting. Spring meant spring rains which prevented the excavator from being of use in the soft mud. But with enough dry days in a row our friend returned to slog through it. We were very lucky that a neighbor saw him removing the rubble and asked to purchase it for his own landscaping project. Thus we were able to make a little bit of cash and find a good use for many loads of it. We kept a decent amount of it for our own purposes as well. One of the lots will require some additional grading and we like to use the well shaped rocks for some hardscapes.

Subdivision After

Rubble mostly cleared

Isn’t that impressive? There’s a large rock remaining in the photo that needs to be broken down further before being moved. But you can see where our eventual road will run. It’s more clear now how the slope is improved on the right-hand side versus the left. We’ll be thankful when it’s icy and we’re trying to drive up the road to our houses. The subdivision follows a 50 foot width further in, but widens sufficiently at the main road.

What great progress!

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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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!


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!


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.


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.


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!


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.