What came first, the chicken or the egg? There’s no definitive answer. But when it comes to building, the several home design books we read urged us to first buy the lot, then tailor the design of the house to fit the advantages and limitations of the lot. We’ve all seen homes that have a great location capped with an ill suited house, or a lovely house that dwarfs the lot or clashes with the neighborhood.
So some five years ago, we set about trying to find “the perfect lot.” That was easier said than done, particularly with the list of attributes we wanted. In general priority order, we wanted: a view of something pleasant (a mountain, a meadow, a river, lake – we knew oceanfront was not in the budget); southern orientation for the back yard (we knew we would build some type of passive solar home); close to medical/groceries/dining/arts (that ruled out rural locations); cycling and walking friendly (Roger is also an avid bicyclist, and both Lynn and Roger enjoy taking their dog for twice daily neighborhood jaunts); public utilities on site (we’ve had well water – no thanks); dog-friendly yard; minimum 1 acre lot.
We looked at a lot, repeat, a lot of lots over a two year period of time. In the end, we circled back to visit one we’d ruled out early in our quest. It had all the qualities we wanted, except that it was “only” 3/4 of an acre, so we had previously dismissed it. And then we came to the realization that as we get older, maybe less mowing wasn’t such a bad idea. It was truly a lovely setting overlooking a bend in the Saco River, previously undeveloped (i.e., not an expensive tear-down), at the end of a short cul-de-sac in a pleasant neighborhood just one mile upstream from the ocean. With a population of under 16,000, Saco is a small but very progressive city. There’s a new convenient year-round Amtrak station along Main street that provides service to Boston. The Amtrak station is powered by a one of two large windmills the city installed a few years ago to generate renewable energy. Saco has single-source recycling, which is still a rarity in Maine. It is located a mere 20 minutes from Portland, Maine’s largest city. So we bought the lot in 2008!
In a pleasant post-script, the boundary survey we commissioned showed that the river has deposited more land on our lot than previously recognized, so in the end, we effectively had a tad over one acre.
Every lot comes with limitations, either natural or from zoning authorities. We did not initially appreciate how restrictive these would be. The lot is flat but slopes rather steeply on the south boundary to the river, and there is a wide drainage area on the east side. We knew the city imposes a 40′ setback to public property and a 20′ setback to abutting properties. We knew that our lot was subject to the overlay zoning authority of the Saco River Corridor Commission (SRCC), which was established to control growth, avoid environmental degradation of the river and shoreline, and preserve vistas. The previous owner transferred a permit to us that allowed us to build no closer than 106′ from the mean high water tide mark of the river. That was workable.
Our lot has a hammerhead turnaround. We later learned that the city interprets the 40′ setback as an arc from all public boundaries. We also learned that the SRCC also requires a 50′ setback from all abutting structures (adjacent homes in our case). Soils also became an issue, as we learned that our lot is composed of a sandy deposit on top of a clay layer at some unknown depth, which makes the upper slopes subject to sloughing off if disturbed. That meant we would have to build well away from the south AND east slopes, and take measures to further stabilize the hillsides. That made our buildable envelope (the remaining footprint of our lot after subtracting the above restrictions) smaller and more challenging than we expected.
There is a storm water drainage pipe along a 10′ wide city owned strip on the west side that has created some troubling erosion problems in recent years. In a bit of serendipity, the city has recently awarded a contract to install a storm water control basin that will allow us to tie in our own storm water management solutions. Construction is to start in the middle of March 2011.
Here is the survey showing lot dimensions and the site constraints. Edgewater site constraints