I had been playing with the idea of putting a guest cottage in my backyard for a few years; the zoning might not allow it but maybe I would just do it anyway and no one would notice?
Then I heard about the “ag exempt” building, apparently I could build a barn with fewer bureaucratic hoops to jump through. I went down to the building department and researched the public record. The helpful woman at the office, after some hesitation, handed over a pile of other peoples' recent applications. I pored over them for a few hours and after a couple more research visits knew what it took to build an ag exempt building.
Last year I built a fence along the road for privacy and potentially hiding my new cottage from any roving building inspectors. Along the fence grew four huge Monterey pines which could also be helpful in shielding my building from any prying eyes driving along the well-traveled county road a couple hundred yards down the mountain. There was also an old slab in the backyard that I was determined to build around.
I enlisted a carpenter to help with the project and he drew a plot plan showing everything on my acre: house, septic, leach field, property line, setbacks, and slopes. He wanted me to get rid of the old 18x20 slab but I refused, thinking it would make a big mess in the yard. He suggested I get rid of the trees too but I wouldn't hear of it! Those are my trees, they give my house some privacy and I'm not going to get rid of trees for a little backyard project that would impact the privacy of the main house.
It was December--I lined up the carpenter for the spring. We had a hell of a winter, our private road slumped off, and the county went to hell with all the rain although my site remained stable. By April I had decided not to get a permit, just to build the damn thing and hope I didn't get caught. If I did I would just go for the ag exempt permit after the fact.
I was still not sure what to do and brought a consultant over to check out the site. He was very discouraging and thought I should get an engineer out to look it over. He didn't like the old trees hanging over the site and thought it was risky not to get a permit, although he wasn't too bothered by the old slab. After that consultation I didn't think the project would get off the ground--the carpenter just hated that slab but I was still attached. Another friend, a general contractor who knew everything about building, came by and I asked him to look at the site. He said the old slab should go and of course the trees.
“What?!” I said. “My trees?”
“Well,” he said. “they're not native, they're dying anyway, and they'll fall on your new building.”
“Well, what else?,” I asked.
“That's three things--isn't that enough?” he said.
Something finally clicked and I decided to get rid of the slab and the trees, and get a permit. I took the plot plan, drew a simple floor plan, and turned in my application at the building department.
Within a week the inspector came by, then sent me a pre-site inspection list that included getting a soils engineer to check out the site. I found the one who had done the work on the existing house and he drove up from the county seat after telling me on the phone that the first minute cost $1200 but if he didn't approve it it would be only $400. He was a monster of a man and waddled his 350 pounds over to the site. I followed his enormous butt crack, trying not to look at the hairy crevice.
“You like to live dangerously,” he said as he looked at the slide just ten feet away from the site, and I got discouraged. “You could build something here that will last 400 years,” he said and I got hopeful again.
He approved the project verbally then went back to his car for the auger which he thrust into the earth to produce a sample. We stood around talking for awhile about his crackpot conspiracy theories and a few days later I got his report and so did the county. It seemed to be clear sailing now though I had not yet realized what I'd gotten myself into by going for the permit.
A cowboy demolition crew came up from Ukiah with a big truck and a few kids who hit at the slab with pickaxes, loaded it into wheel barrows, rode the hydraulic lift up into the back of the truck, and dumped in the cement and rocky rebar. Then the boss went out, rented a jack hammer, and continued loading the massive truck. When they got a good load they followed me out into the country a few miles where I'd found a friendly guy who was accepting fill to use against the erosion along his creek.
After two days of slab removal, the tree cutters came in and took out the pines. I had forgotten to tell them about the septic tank and they dropped a small log right through the two-foot-wide lid--it could have been worse. After the trees were gone the stump grinders came in to get rid of the stumps. The main tree climber was also the stump grinder so it was a long day for him and his puller/grinder assistant.
The site was transformed and I was ready to bring in the back hoe and start site prep. Then the county called me again.
“Since you are on the river you need to get a biologist to affirm that you are at least 100 feet above the transition zone of the river,” he said.
What? Shit. I got on the phone and called a slew of biologists but most were busy counting spotted owls out on logging sites. Finally word of mouth got me a biologist who was actually familiar with my area. He accessed photos of my acre and determined that the building site was 115 feet above the scour zone. He wrote an official letter to the building department and sent me a copy. I brought in the back hoe and started clearing the land. (I had found the back hoe driver on the side of the road outside Laytonville.)
Then I received a letter from Environmental Health saying I couldn't build there because it was within ten feet of the leach field. What?! When the guy had sold me the house five years before he had pointed out the leach field in the side yard but hadn't told me that the whole damn back yard was a leach field too. There was no way I could build without breaching the set-backs on the property line.
I panicked, got on the phone to the planning department, and got the info I'd need to go for a variance before the Board of Supervisors. Then I calmed down, called the Environmental Health guy, and asked him what my options were. He happened to be in the area and came down the next day to look at the site. He said he would waive a few feet if I moved the site another few feet away from the leach field and fortunately the plot plan I had showed a few more feet to the property line. (That's when I realized that everything was negotiable.)
After moving the site, one line ran right into the roots left over from the pine trees. I had to tear down about thirty feet of fence so the back hoe could get in to pull them out.
A couple weeks later the county called saying my permit was ready to be picked up.