The Long and Winding Road to a House on Guemes

August 12, 2020: A local real estate agent told me about a waterfront lot for sale on Guemes Island.
"If you're interested, you better move quickly"
she suggested.

Zillow ad

I noted that the ad said "Lots of work already done making this lot near build ready!"

August 13, 2020: I went to Guemes Island and spent two hours inspecting the lot. It was so overgrown with thick brush that it was difficult to walk around.

thick brush

Still, I was smitten. What a view! That afternoon I made a full-price offer.
Next day the buyer accepted, giving me three weeks before closing to decide if I really wanted to buy it (my offer included no contingencies, so if I backed out, I'd likely lose my earnest money).

Before closing the deal (i.e. coughing up the cash), I wanted to find out if I would be allowed to build a house on it. There seemed to be a possible permit issue with installing a septic system, a prerequisite for building a house. Would a septic system on this lot pass muster with the county health and planning departments? Without a septic system I couldn't build, and this lot would be a very expensive campsite.

I made phone calls and discovered that in 2017 the seller had contracted with an Orcas Island company to do a septic feasibility study. I called them and found out the owner was on vacation and wouldn't return until just before my closing date. Nobody else in the office could help me.

Orcas Island Sewage

Sept 7, 2020: I finally spoke with the septic designer at Orcas Sewage. He remembered inspecting the lot in 2017, and was very skeptical about the potential for health department approval of any kind of septic system, due to the sparse soil (the lot is very rocky). He said "I just want you to go into this with your eyes open, because if you can't get a septic system approved, then you've got a very expensive campsite" (you won't be allowed to build a house).
He said he wouldn't be available to re-inspect the lot for at least a month. Our conversation left me discouraged about carrying through with the purchase.
I decided to search for a different septic designer willing and able to inspect the lot fairly soon, and perhaps offer a more positive outlook. I secured an extension of the closing date.

Sept 17, 2020: I found a local septic designer who expressed confidence that she could figure a way to design a system for this lot that would would get approved. She came out, measured the old septic test pits on my lot and pronounced "You definitely have enough soil for a septic system here." Yippee!

escrow document

September 22, 2020: After two delays in the closing date, I took a risk and closed the deal, hoping that I'd be allowed to build a house.

September 23, 2020: SPACE ENOUGH FOR A HOUSE?
Washington State's 1990 Growth Management Act requires that all cities and counties adopt regulations protecting critical areas in order to preserve the natural environment, wildlife habitats, and sources of fresh drinking water. In 2017 the previous property owners made moves to develop the property and discovered that this property has such a critical area due to proximity to the shoreline (it's a watefront lot). They commissioned two critical area studies: a fish and wildlife study (shoreline proximity) and a geohazard study (lot has a steep slope, aka cliff, above the beach). The geohazard study concluded with a recommendation for a 50 ft. residential setback, stipulating any development would need to be located at least 50 feet away from the top of the slope above the beach. Here's the map produced by Element Solutions, who did the study (50 ft setback area is colored tan, in the upper center of the lot):

Critical Area survey map

In 2017, the previous owners sent the study to Skagit County Planning and Development Services and got official approval for this site plan.

approved site plan

October 8, 2020: I filed an application with the County for a Reasonable Use Exception. My lot is zoned rural intermediate, where the smallest parcel that can be developed is 2.5 acres. To get around this, the County requires this application (an expensive and time-consuming process that doesn't seem to serve much of a function, as the County reportedly rubber-stamps all Reasonable Use Exception applications.) I filed the application and paid the hefty fee and as of July 17, 2021, I'm still waiting approval.

Reasonable Use Exception application

October 13, 2020: So where on the lot was this "50 ft. residential setback"? I hired a surveyor to mark the lot boundaries, and most importantly, mark the 50 ft residential setback so I could locate a house and septic system.


His survey stakes laid out a small buildable area into which I would need to squeeze a house, driveway, septic drainfield, septic reserve area, and septic tanks. Could it all fit?

survey map

November 6, 2020: SHRINK THE SETBACK?
A helpful county planner suggested I could request a reduction in the 50 ft residential setback, resulting in a larger buildable area. I would need to find a geologist to inspect the properrty and help guide me through the approval process. Hmmm... I'll think about this.

November 29, 2020: Waiting for the wheels of progress and bureaucracy to turn, I cleared away a lot of the brush on the upper lot. I bought a chainsaw and started removing some smaller trees where my driveway and house would likely be located.
(Click the pic to watch the flic)

YouTube image of Chris Pforr

December 7, 2020: My septic designer completed a preliminary septic system map.

septic system map

I staked the areas of her proposed system on the ground and realized there was very little room left for a house, and furthermore it would need to be located in the least desirable part of the lot, near the road and seemingly right above my neighbor's shop and house.
(50 ft residential setback line is marked in red, allowed building area is above this).

site plan showing house location

December 13, 2020: BRING IN THE GEOLOGIST
Following up on the planner's November suggestion, I contacted several local geologists and found one recently retired from the planning department and now doing private consulting. He met me at my lot and after a brief look around, said "The visible bedrock here looks extremely stable, so yes, it's very doable." (setback reduction) "As far as I'm concerned, you could put your house out here at the top of the slope if you want. Realistically, that wouldn't be allowed, but requesting a 15 ft. setback reduction seems reasonable. Let me talk with the planning department about it." This was very encouraging.

site plan showing 15 ft setback reduction

January 7, 2021: The geologist relayed the results of his conversation with the planning department:
"Basically they want slope stability modeling, deep drilling in rock geotechnical engineering design consultation. The cost ($10-$20 thousand) to complete such a study would far outweigh the benefits of acquiring an additional 15 feet of space. Well, we tried. Let me know if there is anything else I can do for you."
This meant I'd need to go back and try to squeeze everything into the small buildable area at the top of the lot.

Meanwhile, my septic designer thought she discovered an error in the surveyor's work: according to her measurements on the 2017 Geohazard study map, my surveyor placed the stakes locating the 50 ft residential setback in the wrong place. She called the planner, talked and afterwards and wrote "she thinks that the setback is from the lower bluff. so the 50 ft setback is from the top of the bluff" (i.e. top of the lower slope, not the upper slope).

site plan showing top-of-slope with question marks

If correct, this means I can build my house much closer to the water than the surveyor's 50 ft setback stakes suggested, and is even better than a 15 ft reduction in the 50 ft setback. Yehey!

site plan showing house inside buffer area

February 17, 2021: My first floorplan idea, for a 40 ft x 20 ft house (800 sq ft)..

my house floorplan

March 15, 2021: Several people advised me that the big douglas fir on my lot with a missing top (knocked off by a storm in the distant past) should be removed, lest it fall on my house. I hired a Guemes logger to fell it.
(Click the pic to watch the flic)

YouTube image of a logger

Douglas fir part 2: As predicted, it came down right where my house would likely be located.

YouTube image of a logger

March 30, 2021: At the end of March, it seemed like the house location issues were sorted out, so I began searching for an architect to design my house. I interviewed several and decided to hire a friendly and knowledgeable Anacortes architect who visited my lot and seemed eager to work on it.

architect cartoon

April 4, 2021: My first Photoshop vision of how my house might look.


May 7, 2021: My architect created his first preliminary floor plan for my house..

preliminary floor plan

May 14, 2021: Are you SURE?
After trying for months to get the most sought-after excavation contractor on Guemes to come out and work on my lot, he told me he was ready to begin: he would excavate my driveway, septic tank holes, house site, septic drainfield and septic reserve - and connect my lot to the community water pipe out in the road. A few days before he started, my architect cautioned me: "Are you SURE you're cleared to dig up the 50 ft residential setback area? It'd be a shame to do all that work and then find out it's for nothing" (wasted effort and money, plus I could be fined by the County for tearing up a critical geohazard area).
I called up the engineering firm that did the 2017 critical area study, and spoke with a principal engineer. He pulled up their 2017 map and declared "top-of-slope clearly refers to the top of the upper slope, not the lower bench, and I don't see how anybody could think it's the lower one."
So unfortunately, my septic designer was incorrect, I CAN'T excavate inside the 50 ft residential setback area. Back to the drawing boards, try to squeeze a house into the small buildable area between the 50 ft setback stakes and the road.

excavator clipart

May 18, 2021: THE 217 SQ. FT. HOUSE
I called the county planner who had agreed with my septic designer about the apparent staking error and informed her of what the engineer had said. She accepted that "top-of-slope" refers to the top of the upper slope. This being the case, I would need to optimize the layout within the limited building envelope. This will entail a septic layout re-design.
I made new drawings with new locations for septic areas, showing a small buildable area and desired house location. I discovered a likely scale error & resulting map discrepancy on the 2017 critical area map. This was the likely source of the septic designer thinking the survey stakes were in the wrong location.
I contacted a setback specialist at the county planning department, to further clarify the limitations of my buildable area. She explained that the 25 ft. front setback is measured from the 20 ft. road easement, not from my property line, which is out in the road. This was bad news, it further reduces the size of the buildable area.
With this new information, my architect made a new site plan, resulting in an allowed house footprint of just 217 sq ft. Tiny house indeed!
I was dismayed, to say the least. What should I do? Give up and sell the lot? Or keep trying to figure out a way to build a house here?.

Site plan showing 217 sq ft house footprint

June 21, 2021: A WHOLE NEW IDEA

I vaguely remembered that last December, the geologist had said that the septic fields could be located inside the 50 ft residential setback area. I called him again and he confirmed that according to county critical area code, this would be allowed. So:
* I contacted the critical area planner at the county to get her approval. She gave her provisional OK IF I can get the engineering firm that did the 2017 geohazard study to sign off on it.
* I contacted a principal engineer at the engineering firm and he endorsed the new plan. He said he'll write a memo to me and the planning department.
* I contacted my septic designer to get her OK. She is unfamiliar with septic fields inside critical area setbacks but tentatively said OK. I will need to dig new septic test pits in the prospective drainfield area so she can evaluate soil depth (I've already done this).
* I contacted the health department to get their OK and they said fine, assuming the soils are sufficient to support a septic drainfield.
* I contacted my architect and he made a site plan that shows the septic fields inside the 50 ft residential setback.

June 21, 2021 site plan map

July 18, 2021: UPDATE. I'm presently awaiting soil inspection by my septic designer and the endorsement memo from the consulting engineer. When those are complete, we'll be able to modify the already-filed septic system permit application. Next I'll apply for an administrative variance for a 20 ft. reduction in the 25 ft. front setback requirement, which would allow locating the house more-or-less in the center of the buildable area. Processing time for that variance is 3-to-6 months, and with that in hand, I hopefully will be able to submit an application for a building permit, current processing time 6-to-12 months.
If there are no further major obstacles (I'm hopeful but not optimistic), I could begin building a house by fall 2022.

hammer and nails