By Michael E. Perrault, P.E.
So you have a few extra acres of land and want to sell off some lots. Before you post a “Lots For Sale” sign on your land, there are a few steps that need to be followed to transform your raw land into actual building lots.
These steps are based on my personal experience gained in over 30 years in land development civil engineering and are my own opinion. We all know that opinions are like noses, we all have one, so you will have to decide if my opinion is worth anything.
Probably the most important first step is to perform a “due diligence study”, which is a fancy term for “doing your homework”. This study is basically researching a bunch of data, rules, regulations, etc. that relate to your land. For example, is a public water supply available to serve the new lots and what are the requirements for extending the water system to the lots (permits, materials and don’t forget costs). A basic due diligence study will evaluate local zoning requirements, subdivision regulations, utilities, health codes (when on-site septic systems and or drinking water wells are needed), wetlands, endangered species, soils, local permitting as well as state & federal permitting. The goal of this due diligence study is to allow you to make an informed decision to proceed with the development process.
Now that you decided to go ahead, the next step is to prepare a “conceptual design”. Generally, your property deed is used to prepare a worksheet plan of the perimeter of your land, since not all deeds make a reference to a detailed property survey plan (this is especially true in New England). The local Zoning requirements and subdivision regulations are applied to create a concept plan. This plan can include other general information such as wetlands, general topography and available plan data. The “conceptual plan” is an important, low cost, planning tool. You do not need to spend money at this time on a perimeter or topographic survey, since you are still trying to determine if you can develop your land. The “conceptual plan” allows you to ask the “what if” questions and look at alternatives. At this stage, general initial budget numbers can be established for the two major components, Engineering / Permitting and Construction.
Before spending a lot of money and time, there are a few steps to take to help you decide to move forward.
The first is associated with wetlands. There are Federal and State Wetland Regulations that limit land development. To make matters more complicated, local municipalities are also adopting Wetland By-laws and regulations that prohibit work in the wetland buffer zones. Before doing anything, have the wetland resource areas on and adjacent to your property delineated. While you may not have a wetland on your land, you may be within a buffer zone of the wetland on your neighbor’s property which would impact your development. An assessment of the extent of the wetlands, without performing an on-the-ground location survey, will help you determine if your development project can move forward. In some States, there is an application process that allows you to have the wetland resource area approved, which basically freezes the wetland line for a period of years, allowing you to proceed with the permitting process without having the wetland line shift and causing a major re-design.
Another of these initial steps has to do with properties that do not have a municipal sanitary sewer system available and have to rely on individual on-site septic systems. The soils on your property has to be suitable to allow for the design and construction of these septic systems. Soils mapping can only give you a general indications of the surface soils and general geology. The conceptual design can be you guide in performing some initial test holes to obtain actual data regarding suitable soils and percolation rates as well as the elevation of the high groundwater. If you land needs to have septic systems and it does not have suitable soils, then unless you can extend a municipal sanitary sewer to your land, you have a very serious problem with going forward.
The next step is the “Preliminary Plan”. Each local planning agency has their own set of rules regarding the format and content of “Preliminary Subdivision Plans”. While these preliminary plans are intended to present general design information, some communities have insisted on having more detailed design data shown at this phase. For those projects that present unique ideas for the laying out of the roads and lots, which may not be looked upon in a favorable light with the local planning agency, it may be wise to schedule an informal discussion with the planning agency during one of their meetings. The updated conceptual plan can be presented for comments and questions. The results of this informal meeting can be used in the preparation of the “Preliminary Plan”.
In order to prepare the “Preliminary Plan”, the perimeter of your property needs to be determined, the physical features and topography surveyed as well as the locations of the wetlands. The local Zoning and Subdivision Regulations evaluated and applied in the design of the subdivision roadway layout and lots. The “Preliminary Plan” also needs to show, in a general manner, the public water supply, storm drainage, etc. The local planning agency will schedule a formal meeting to discuss the “Preliminary Plan”. Some communities require all abutters within a certain distance to be mailed a notification of this meeting and a notice published in a local newspaper. There are certain legal benefits in having a local planning agency approve a “Preliminary Plan”. Just to be clear, the approval of a “Preliminary Subdivision Plan” does not mean that you will get an automatic approval for the “Definitive Subdivision Plan”.
The “Definitive Subdivision Plan” step is where all the formal design plans are created for your land development project. There are multiple drawings / plans that make up the “Definitive Subdivision Plan”. There is a plan created for the geometry of the roadways and lots (this is the plan that gets recorded at the Registry of Deeds ), a plan showing the existing and proposed topography, a plan & profile for the roadways, a plan & profile for utilities not within a roadway layout, and a series of plans showing details for the road and utility construction. The layout design for the various utilities (infrastructure) is presented on these plans. Also included on separate documents are lot & roadway geometry calculations, drainage calculations and specific environmental reports mandated by local planning agencies.
A formal “Public Hearing” will be advertised and held to discuss your subdivision plan. The abutters and certain agencies are all given written notice of this public hearing. Other municipal agencies are provided copies of the plan to review and make comments. Some communities have an independent peer review performed on the subdivision plan. The public hearing can be continued over several meeting nights to allow for comments to be addressed, which may result in revisions to the design plans. Once the planning agency is satisfied (if they are not satisfied, they can deny your project) that your plan is complete and acceptable, they will close the public hearing and vote to approve the “Definitive Subdivision Plan”. Most communities have an appeal period that follows this approval, which allows for a legal appeal of the decision.
If the project falls within the jurisdiction of a local or state agency regarding work in or adjacent to wetlands, a formal permit application needs to be made to allow the project to be built. I am a firm believer in doing this wetlands permitting in parallel with the “Definitive Subdivision: process. This approach allows you to gain review comments from two permitting agencies at the same time. These comments can be addressed and shown on the revised drawings / plans during the public hearing process. The overall result will be one set of approved final plans that do not require you to go back to get re-approved by the other agency.
These steps, as presented, are only an overview of the more common permitting tasks in converting raw land into building lots and does not include any construction phase items.
As an example, the drawing below is an “Open Space ” residential subdivision that I designed. The project involved all of the above described steps and more! Each of the lots has their own on-site septic system with drinking water provided by a municipal water supply.
Here is what the site looked like in April 2005.
As you can see, as of the date of this aerial photo, the majority of the project was complete (it is now fully completed). Hard to believe that this residential subdivision was once a gravel pit!
This blog was intended as an “overview” to the land development process. I intend on creating a series of blogs with more detail on the individual steps and tasks.