The quest to build something very cool in a very hazardous area

January 8

(Dan Wittenberg)

Dan Wittenberg bought about 13 acres of land in the Potomac River flood zone because of his love of sailing and windsurfing. Eight years ago, with no special real estate or construction skills, Wittenberg built an 800-square-foot cottage there (the maximum permissible on that 566,000 square foot lot). Now he’ll chronicle his attempt to build something special that will pass regulators’ muster on a just-purchased one-third of an acre waterfront parcel next door.

In Georgetown, $22,730 will get you about half a parking space at a condo building. But 56 miles away in St. Mary’s County, $22,730 is what I paid to a guy with two initials instead of a first name for a third of an acre lot smack in the middle of what the Federal Emergency Management Agency deems a flood zone.

This means that my lot is within FEMA’s “Coastal High Hazard Area (CHHA) – High Risk” which is “subject to inundation by the 1-percent-annual-chance flood event with additional hazards due to storm-induced velocity wave action.” Thus, any structure within the area will have a 26 percent chance of flooding sometime within the duration of a 30-year mortgage.  The tottering ruins of the once pretty cottage and formerly stout seawall there, both Hurricane Isabel victims from a decade ago, attest that this bit of bureaucratese isn’t mere government henny-pennying.

In other words, I got a deal on some cheap waterfront in Southern Maryland where I intend to build something very cool. What exactly that will be isn’t clear yet since lots of negotiating with loads of regulators has to occur before any approvals are granted.

You see, besides garnering the top score on the FEMA flood map, this problematic plot also happens to be within Maryland’s “Chesapeake Bay Critical Area,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ “Non-Tidal Wetlands Buffer Zone” and the St. Mary’s County Department of Land Use and Growth Management’s “Rural Preservation District.” It’s the trifecta of multi-jurisdictional environmental oversight.

All those designations mean that this strip of land is sandwiched between a swamp and a Chesapeake Bay tributary and comes with just enough “grandfathered” rights to build “something” but more than enough special regulatory restrictions to scare off any sane developer. That probably explains why the seller ended up having to flip the parcel to me — as the someone in love with the place, perhaps the greatest fool in real estate’s cherished “greater fool theory.”

This lot is so compelling to me for the very reason that it ranks so high as an insurance-risk — it sits low on a very large, tidal body of water. That body of water happens to be the Potomac River. Yes, the same narrow, freshwater stream that meanders by our monuments here in Washington.

Down in St. Mary’s County, the Potomac is more like a sea, however. It’s between eight and 15 miles wide and its brackish water is home to bull sharks, porpoises and even the occasional whale. In fact, that stretch of the river is so broad that its first explorer, John Smith (of Pocahontas fame), originally thought that he’d discovered the long sought-after Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

As in Smith’s time, bald eagles and ospreys still soar over shimmering waves. The sun still sets with a “green flash” that turns the whole sky pink. And the moon still rises like a huge red lantern below the Milky Way. Even if it isn’t a shortcut to China, it is an absolutely ideal place for weekend windsurfing, sailing, kite-boarding, kayaking, fishing, swimming, reading and drinking. Although it may feel centuries away, it’s only an hour and a half’s drive from D.C., too. For me the question never was “why build there?” but rather “how can you resist building there?”

Certainly all those frustrating layers of governance heaped on such Chesapeake Bay watershed properties can turn routine fights with City Hall into tag team matches involving the State House, the Capitol and the Pentagon but they are also the administrative encumbrances that keep that neck of the county (where they really are called “necks”) pristine enough so that you’d want to build your weekend getaway there in the first place. And that’s exactly the “something” that I’ll be building out at the end of Medley’s Neck.

I’m no ingénue (I’ve done this once before — and only about 200 yards away) so I know, at the very least, that it will be an interesting headache. This time, I’m inviting all the readers of The Washington Post to join me in taking on this regulatory and construction challenge and, hopefully, turning the undertaking into a loveable ordeal.

We can share the odyssey together in nearly “real time” for the next year or so here in this column where I’ll try to entertainingly record our progress throughout the whole byzantine process. I’ll be soliciting all of you interactively for your ideas, suggestions, designs and wisdom at every step of the way as we persevere from the Kafka-esque compliance issues right through to the “nuts and bolts” building matters.

This very public and transparent experiment isn’t intended to be a clever end-run around the regulators and their statutes but a collaborative effort with them in the intelligent permitting and construction of a useful and attractive structure that satisfies all their concerns in this nearby environmentally sensitive and flood-prone area.

I’d hope that the finished product will provide not just an awesome, affordable, durable and useful shelter but a sort of road map of future practical design and economical construction for both homeowners and regulators.

I’m convinced that we can tackle this somewhat daunting task jointly by using common sense, innovative design, sustainable building materials, alternative construction techniques, good technology and good will. Moreover, we’re going to accomplish it within a fairly tight budget ($100,000 including the already spent $22,730 and another $20,000 earmarked for seawall repair and a dock) and do so without having to hammer in a single nail ourselves. Otherwise, the experiment would be a bit like playing tennis without a net.

Since it happens to be my tight budget and the construction of my money pit that we’re talking about here I get to be the ultimate arbiter. In the next installment, I’ll lay out the concepts, parameters and constraints of the project.

 

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