Dan Wittenberg bought about 13 acres of land in the Potomac River flood zone in St. Mary’s County 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’s chronicling his attempt to build something special that will pass regulators’ muster on a just-purchased one-third of an acre waterfront parcel next door. This is his seventh installment.
There’s a shiny, yellow Komatsu excavator on my lot. It’s been parked there for about three weeks now.
During favorable tides and clement weather it’s been making pretty good progress in retrofitting those 28 massive concrete slabs of the failed existing seawall into a properly permitted “living shoreline” — the lowest cost and “greenest” solution to both reclaiming the beach and protecting the land.
All that repurposing begs the question of why such a monumental but entirely useless bulwark was ever built there in the first place. At 90 feet long, 12 feet wide and 6 feet thick, it’s crafted out of an absolutely staggering amount of concrete (so much so, that it was cost-prohibitive to even think of hauling it away — as it would have required a whole fleet of dump trucks and a very understanding landfill owner).
The other day I finally got an explanation of the genesis of this “Great Wall of the Potomac” from a neighbor who had spent his childhood summers down there. He vividly remembers the cottage’s original tenant — a retired trash truck driver from Waldorf — single-handedly mixing and pouring all that concrete. While the driven retiree obsessively fortified his little plot of heaven against the ever-threatening river, his wife, dying of cancer, would sit on a lawn chair beside him (and the hand-cranked cement mixer) staring off into its shimmering infinity and merely enjoying its beauty.
After hearing such a poignant story, I’m certainly glad that all of his noble handiwork (even if misguided and quixotic) is able to be recycled into the two breakwaters of the southeast-facing sandtrap that I’m building in its stead in order to restore and stabilize this piece of riverbank. Hopefully, when complete, it will work as planned (it’s already accreting sand) and ultimately become the naturally sloping, functional beach that we want it to be.
According to the heavy equipment operator doing the work, rearranging those countless tons of lovingly handmade concrete to form two breakwater groins extending out into the river connected by a shoreside, horseshoe-shaped rock and earth berm is kind of like playing Rubik’s Cube with a backhoe.
It involves some highly skilled digging, lifting, breaking, burying, placing and stacking of very heavy blocks on very soggy land, tidal water and shifting sand. All in a very specific order, too, so that the tracked machine itself doesn’t topple over or sink into the mire. In fact, while delivering a load of bluestone (used to aesthetically armor that re-used concrete) one dump truck did, indeed, subside into the muck and the hardworking excavator had to spend five hours trying to pull it out. At one point, the whole operation even ground to a halt for a week and a half after the tank-like vehicle’s hydraulic bucket finally did succumb to the accumulated strain of this job. A certified mechanic had to come out then and heal the poor thing before the beach restoration could resume. Soon, though, that part of the project should be, more or less, finished.
Messy as it may seem, the lot’s waterfront is already far better looking than it was. Remember the “before” shot?
Of course, the next step will be knocking down the cottage and putting up in its place a more technologically and environmentally sound hurricane and flood resistant structure.
Just one little shove from that big excavator could easily topple those already tottering ruins. But I can’t do that before securing a demolition permit — a process that really needs to be done in lockstep with obtaining the building permit for its replacement structure. Only by applying for these two things simultaneously can one ensure that the existing cottage’s footprint, which will likely establish the allowable building area for any new construction on the lot, is officially recognized by the county.
I’m in the process of filling in the necessary application forms now. I’ve decided that the new structure will not be a “house” per se (i.e. a residence eligible to ultimately receive an occupancy permit from the county) but a “recreational structure.” It’s somewhat of a fine distinction but that way I avoid a protracted (and probably losing) battle with the county over whether my lot is entitled to its grandfathered septic permit (which is the essential prerequisite for any “house” in the county). That also means that my building cannot, in any conventional sense, have either running water or plumbing. As mentioned in a previous column, without a septic permit you cannot drill a water well or install any kind of sewage system (including an outhouse) in St. Mary’s County — unless you happen to be Amish. Thus, the box I’m checking on the permit application will be “Detached Structure, Other (Describe).”
For want of a better term, I’ve deemed it an “Enclosed Pavilion” and here, thanks to your crowd sourced reader feedback, is the description that will follow:
“A single-story rectangular, steel, free-standing structure of approximately 40 ft x 16 ft (640 sq ft). It will be surrounded by two decks, each of 320 square feet, along its longitudinal axis and two decks, each of 64 sq ft, along its lateral axis. Those decks actually constitute the walls of the structure which can be hoisted to enclose the structure — essentially becoming house-wide “hurricane shutters.” Adequate flotation will be installed underneath the structure enabling it, in the event of a tidal surge or flood, to rise and float as a single unit — similar to a floating dock. The foundation will be pilings driven into the ground (in the same manner as those of a floating dock) to which the building will then be securely tethered.”
If you notice, those also happen to be the exact dimensions of two side-by-side 40-foot shipping containers.
We’ll see what happens.
Read Dan Wittenberg’s previous columns: