“You can’t get there from here.”
Make sure you say that with your best Maine accent. This is a saying I have heard many times in my life and a favorite for old timers and youngsters alike in Maine. Sometimes it is true; sometimes it’s just a matter of perspective and creativity.
It’s not unusual for new construction sites to have issues with access. In fact, many sites are available for construction within towns, cities, and rural areas alike but have not been developed because of a lack of access. Most times, the isolation of a site is due to older construction that was done prior to the planning and zoning offices taking control of the land layout. In some cases it is due to topography and/or other natural impacts such as streams and gullies.
For many situations, additional work is necessary to build bridges or other access points. In other cases, however, one may need to acquire an easement from an adjacent property owner. Knowing what to ask for and what to offer in return is important as a poor offer may offend the neighbor and a rich offer may break your bank unnecessarily. Be sure you know what you need and what you want.
What is the most important vehicle that needs access to your site? If you answered anything other than emergency vehicles, you should think again. By far the most important vehicles that need access to your site are fire trucks and ambulances. Most turn radius designs in modern construction are based on what is required for a full size fire truck to have safe access. In addition, bridge loads are also calculated for the weight of a fire truck. The grade of your approach is managed based on an ambulance having access. Because ambulances are so rear heavy (due to all the equipment they carry) most jurisdictions will not allow grades above 14% with only small spurts of up to 18%. Making sure you meet these requirements is the only thing you must do, everything else is just for your own wants.
Let’s say your dream property lays just beyond a neighbor’s corner. In order to gain access, you will need to approach that neighbor about an easement. Start simple. Ask them if they are willing to grant you access, period. If they are not, ask them what they would be willing to consider. Perhaps if you have a shared maintenance agreement, they would accept the easement. This is especially useful if the easement would be over an existing driveway. The added use of your access does not really impact the original driveway and the owners get help in the upkeep costs of the driveway.
In some, in fact most, cases, you will have to add an extension to an existing driveway or even add an entirely new driveway to the property. These situations usually call for a fee. Once again, ask the owners what they are willing to accept. Start small and negotiate a fair agreement for you both. Include any agreed upon cost in your land development estimates for the bank. The money you spend on the easement is recoverable in the loan as the entire project’s viability depends on the access which, ultimately, depends on the easement.
Some cities and towns may be willing to work with you on lowering public service fees if you build on an “in-fill” lot. These are lots that have been in existence for a long time, but have remained undeveloped due to the lack of available access. If you can secure the access, then work with the city to lower your service fees such as building permit costs, sewer and water hookup fees, park and recreation fees, and so on. Most jurisdictions want to use the infill lots before they expand their urban growth boundary. By getting the city or town offices to work with you, you can both win.
No matter what you need to accomplish: bridges, extra excavation, easements, or city compliance, make sure you add the appropriate costs to you budget. All of these items can be expensive and signing a purchase agreement without knowing what the costs will be will get you into trouble quickly. You may be able to lower the sale price of the property by showing the seller the access challenges. The seller will not be able to sell the property to anyone without the buyer addressing the same concerns.
As a final note, if you need an easement to access the property, be absolutely sure you have it in your title work before you close on the property. The grantor and beneficiary of the easement should be duly noted in the title papers so that a binding agreement is made. Without this, there is always the chance that you will close on the land only to find out that the grantor of the easement has changed their mind and now you have land that you cannot access to build on. Bummer!