Monday, December 9, 2019

So You Want to Build a Driveway?

Long-time readers of this blog may remember that about four years ago, we bought six acres of raw land.  For a refresher, here are the posts: part 1, part 2, part 3, final.  It was a bit of an exhausting and overwhelming process.  And I have to admit that while I was really excited about having a place of my own for Nimo, I felt really intimidated by the process of getting from raw land to a developed horse property.

Early on in my days of land ownership, I contacted the county zoning department to start getting a sense of what was needed to get started.  I researched the zoning laws and permitting requirements for things like sheds, barns, fences, livestock, and driveways.  I even went so far as to get an estimate for a driveway from one of the contractors that my boarding stable works with.  It was kind of terrifying.  As was the idea that I would have to put up a $2,000 bond in addition to the money for the driveway.  (The State of Virginia requires land owners to pay a bond to the state that is essentially held in escrow while the driveway is being built.  After inspection of the finished driveway, the bond is theoretically returned to the land owner, but only if the contractor didn't cause any damage to a public road as part of the process.  So if your contractor damages the road, you have to pay the state and I guess sue the contractor for damages.  What a nightmare.)

I finally decided to leave it alone for awhile.  Awhile turned into several years.  We did go out to the acreage periodically and one winter, my husband and a friend tried hunting there and they cut down some trees to try to start clearing a path for us to use to explore the wooded part of the acreage more. And we brush-hogged once or twice (and one of our thoughtful neighbors brush-hogged a couple of other times), but overall, we left the property neglected.  It was getting harder and harder for me to justify paying what are (in my opinion) ridiculous property taxes for what is raw land, and my husband was pretty sure my horse barn would never be built.

Finally, this spring I decided that I was absolutely going to get a driveway built.  Part of the reason we didn't go out to the acreage very much was because the land is fairly level (a good thing!), which makes it subject to getting overly wet when it rains (not a good thing).  And, of course, last year, we had a record-breaking rainfall (I think it was something like 65" when our normal rainfall is more in the 45-50" range).  So we didn't get out there at all for fear of getting stuck.

But, if we had a driveway, we could access the property anytime we liked.  So I contacted a company that I had gotten in touch with prior to even buying the acreage.  I remembered how responsive and how willing to give me some ballpark estimates they had been back then.  I was so impressed, I'd saved the email, and I got in touch.  I got a quick response, and it wasn't long before I had an appointment to meet with the company's representative to give me an estimate for a driveway.  I should note that I was very careful to explain the scope of the project as well as my anticipated future needs.  I wanted to be sure they knew it wouldn't be a big job to start with, but I was hoping they would get my subtle point that if the driveway went well, it would be likely that I would have a lot more work for them.

The first thing that happened was that I realized I couldn't make the scheduled appointment because I had forgotten about a prior commitment, so we rescheduled.  The second thing that happened was that we had to reschedule again because the contractor had an equipment breakdown.  The third time was the charm and I met the contractor at the acreage.  I got kind of a good-ole-boy feeling from him, but he otherwise seemed capable.  We agreed that he would provide an estimate both for the driveway and for a concrete pad for a shed we wanted to build.

I patiently waited for the estimate.  Two days went by.  A week went by.  I sent an email.  The contractor quickly responded.  He was running behind, but he would surely have the estimate to me soon, within a day or two.  Another few days went by.  No estimate.  I sent another email.  I was immediately assured the estimate would be provided the next day.  More time went by.  Eventually I realized I wasn't going to get an estimate.

I was pretty pissed off.  I know it wasn't a big job, but I'd been really clear about that up front.  If the job was too small or the contractor didn't have the time, then why not just say that?  Why lead me on for what ended up being several weeks?  I can't really say.  But it kind of sucked.  So I posted on a Facebook forum for Virginia horse owners and got some leads on companies.  I basically picked one out of a hat and contacted him to get an estimate.  We set up a time to meet.

I showed up for the appointment and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Eventually, I realized he was not coming.  So I went home.  I got a call a couple of hours later with profuse apologies for simply forgetting the appointment.  The old me would have not even bothered answering the phone.  I certainly wouldn't have given the guy another chance.  But the new, kinder, gentler me decided that he was being truthful (and I remembered the few times that I have simply forgotten something too - we're all human...), so we set up a new time to meet.

This time, he arrived early.  He listened to what I wanted, offered his thoughts, and gave me an estimate on the spot.  That was more along the lines of what I was expecting, to be honest.  The first guy I'd had out to give me an estimate a few years ago was also able to give me an estimate almost immediately.  If you do a lot of driveways and work with gravel, you know how much gravel costs and how much your labor costs without having to think too much.  So we made a verbal deal.  The contractor needed a little more information from me (like an approved permit from the state and the county), so we couldn't finalize the contract immediately.

My next step was to fill out the paperwork for the state.  Apparently, I needed the state's approval to have an entrance onto my property (my libertarian self is highly offended by that, I might add).  And then once the state approved it, the county had to approve it.  The good news is that I did not need a $2,000 bond.  I only needed a $500 bond.  Still annoying, but much more doable.

So I filled out the paperwork and I had some questions.  Much like in the Federal grants world where grant processes are set up to accommodate the very largest of grants, permits are set up for large corporations and contractors, not small home- or land-owners.  The good thing is that I was able to set up an appointment for the state inspector to meet me at my property and basically do the inspection on site and help me with my paperwork at the same time.

We set up a day and time based on a break in the rainy weather.  An added hiccup was that the county had repaved the road that runs in front of our acreage.  While I appreciated the attention to maintenance (and felt a little less bitter about my taxes), the repaving added a good four inches of height to the road.  And it made getting out of our acreage with anything other than four-wheel drive almost impossible.  Plus, there was a visibility issue (some of which could be brush-hogged away), so it always felt a little dangerous pulling out on to the road.  When I set up the appointment, I am positive that I mentioned this information.  Ahem...

The day for the meeting with the state inspector dawned bright and sunny and hot.  I got there first, but the inspector showed up almost on time in a pick-up.  He drove onto the acreage, and we proceeded to work on the paperwork while I explained what I wanted, which was a 12' wide by 100' long straight gravel driveway with a 30' apron where it meets the road.  A culvert wasn't needed because of how level everything was.

The inspector was really nice and very accommodating.  He assured me there would be no issue with approval and I would have the official paperwork within a week.  Yay!  We each got into our respective vehicles and I watched him prepare to pull out on to the road.  In what was apparently a two-wheel drive truck.  Yep.  The state of Virginia gives its permit inspectors, who drive onto muddy, slick, clay soil construction sites, two-wheel drive vehicles.

The inspector got really stuck within seconds because as I mentioned before, we were at the end of the rainiest year on record, and the clay soil is slick and deep.  Sigh...I had visions of the movie, The Money Pit, running through my head.  I imagined my permit application being deposited in the lowest bowels of the building, never to be seen again.

We attempted a few things to get him unstuck.  I piled some tree branches near the tires to see if he could get traction.  Nope.  I found a rope and tried to pull him out, but the rope was not strong enough.  I called my husband to see if he could bring a few bags of gravel, but he was stuck at the car dealership waiting for a car repair.  Finally, the inspector had to call a VDOT rescue truck to come pull him out.  We made awkward small talk for half an hour while we waited.

Finally the rescue contingent arrived and pulled him out in a few minutes.  I think they really thought they would have to pull me out too, so it was with great satisfaction that I simply drove out with zero effort.  Thank you four-wheel drive, low gear!  (And also, thank you to all the times I have driven in the mud and even gotten myself stuck in the past, so I had plenty of experience in how to properly extract myself.)

Now I had to wait for the permit approval.  I waited a week.  No approval.  Two weeks went by.  No approval.  And then, a few days later, it finally arrived via email.  So I was good to go with the state.

My next step was to submit the permit application for the county.  I admit that I did not jump right on that paperwork.  Part of the problem was that I really, really did not want to make the trip into the county seat, which is a good 40 minute drive from my house.  I had a lot of stuff going on, and I was not feeling inspired to interact with more bureaucrats.  I was also really bitter that I couldn't submit the application online.  In fact, the permit application that I was supposed to use, according to the county, didn't even have a space for driveway permits, so I couldn't figure out why I was using the form, and I was suspicious that they had made up the requirement for me to get one.

Eventually, I made the time and drove out to the permit office.  I expected to be able to double-check a couple of things on the form (like how do I indicate I'm applying for a driveway permit when that isn't even an option) and drop off my paperwork.  It sounded like all the county did was rubberstamp the state's approval and charge me a ridiculous sum of money.

And yet, when I got there, I sat for half an hour while someone slowly typed in each detail from my permit application into the computer.  I inwardly fumed.  Not only was it a colossal waste of my time to have to drive out there, and then sit there, but if the process was automated, I could have entered all the information myself and avoided a duplicative effort.  Aaaarrrrggggghhhhh…

Anyway, after the date entry extravaganza, I was told my permit approval would take about a week.  In the meantime, I had gotten in touch with my contractor and we finalized our contract.  As soon as I had the county approval, the contractor could begin work.

So I waited for the county approval.  About two weeks later, I was notified via email that my permit was approved and I COULD COME PICK IT UP AT THE OFFICE.  My $75 application fee did not apparently cover postage.  I let my contractor know about the approval, and he indicated that he wouldn't be able to start on the driveway for at least a couple of weeks, so there was no rush on getting the permit just yet.  I was relieved and promptly procrastinated about picking up the permit.

I did finally get around to picking it up in July.  I had taken my daughter to a birthday party and the party was sort of on the way from my house to the permit office.  Unfortunately, I managed to get seriously dehydrated and overheated at the party (pool parties are really not my thing!), so I was miserable driving to the permit office.

When we got there, I expected to be able to pick up my permit approval and leave.  Alas, this is not the way of county government.  First, I had to wait for the right person to be located and bless me with her presence.  Then I had to wait while she made copies of all the paperwork that I had previously submitted and that she had typed into the computer during my first visit.  Her next step was to fill out the actual permit that I needed to have my contractor post at the job site.  Please explain to me why these things were not done before I arrived?

It is a testament to how much I really wanted that driveway that I kept my mouth shut and did not point out the deficiencies that I noticed in the process (although posting about them on a public blog may not be my brightest idea, but I feel like it is a public service to let people know what they are in for).  Once I had the permit in hand, I headed home for a much-needed break in the air conditioning before driving out to the acreage that night and stapling the permit on the sign the contractor had set up.

Now it was time to wait for the contractor.  Those of you who have hired contractors are probably familiar with the familiar conversation that goes something like this:

Me: So, how long do you think it will be before you're able to get to the driveway.

Contractor:  Oh, about two weeks.

In case you did not know, "two weeks" is contractor speak for "whenever I get around to it."

As might be expected, two weeks came and went and no driveway.  Then it was three weeks.  I sent a message to the contractor gently inquiring about when my driveway would be done.  He responded with "one week."  Another week went by.  Then two weeks.  Finally, when I began to despair that I would never see a driveway in my lifetime, my contractor texted me a picture.

Behold!  My driveway!
I was so excited that I drove out the same day to take a look at it.  It's possible that I dragged a friend with me so that she could witness the great event too.  (I'm pretty sure she expected to see something much more significant, LOL!)

And so, a little less than four years after we purchased our acreage, we had a driveway.  And yet, the process was not over yet.  I had to contact the state permitting office to let them know that the driveway had been completed and then I had to wait for them to come out to inspect it.  So I waited, and I waited, and I waited.  I think it was two or three weeks before the inspection was done.  Then I got an official completion letter (note to the county - it was via email!).  The next step was to wait for my bond to be returned.  The state could legally keep it for up to two months after issuing the completion letter.  (In the Federal government, we have to start paying interest after 30 days...)  Thankfully, they did send me a check in about a month, and finally, this single step in what I'm sure will be a long journey was complete.

Which was really good, because in anticipation of having a driveway, I had done something much earlier in the year (late April or early May, I think) that meant I really needed to have the driveway in place sooner rather than later.

To find out exactly what I did, stay tuned!:)


  1. Contractors' "schedules" and "timelines" are THE MOST frustrating things EVER. So glad you got your driveway!

    1. Thanks, Liz! I'm drooling over your barn and fantasizing about the day I finally get mine done!

  2. I think your county took a page out of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when it comes to filling out forms and bureaucracy. Jesus Christ. So GLAD you got your driveway! And can't wait to hear what you did. :)

    1. LOL! I hadn't thought about that! I might have to re-read the book just for laughs:)