Trying to Build a House on a Lot With No Street

I own a vacant parcel of land in East Nashville that I am attempting to make “buildable.” It was included in a deal that I purchased last year. The seller had a two bedroom cottage on one lot that received the majority of attention, and almost as an afterthought, the listing agent mentioned that the adjacent parcel was also included in the sale. At first glance, the house appeared to simply have an extra large side and back yard, so I’m not certain that all potential buyers realized that there were two separate lots. The listing received plenty of interest from buyers, eliciting nine offers in about 36 hours. I wrote about my reasoning for paying $15,000 over the list price, and one of the reasons was for the potential use of the vacant lot. Before making our “highest and best offer,” I called the fine folks of the Metro Nashville Government to see if the unused lot could be built upon. I was hoping for a simple answer. Now, over a year later, it has become quite clear that the answer is anything but simple.

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The difficulty with this lot, and probably the reason that no house exists on it, is due to a large “wet weather conveyance” (aka a creek) that runs right through it. The creek varies between widths of 20-25 feet across and runs the full length of the parcel. It is large enough that the road stops on both sides of it, creating two dead ends, and one lot with basically no road frontage.

Although dry most of the year, this creek carries quite a bit of stormwater that runs off of Ellington Parkway and the surrounding neighborhood during the rainy seasons. The first step in seeing if this lot would be buildable was to file a “Community Water Determination Request.” Essentially, Metro Water Services storm water division had to assess the water quality and decide if this channel was a stream or not, which would impact the widths of the overlaying easement. In short, if there were fish and crawdads playing in the water, the easements would be larger, and there would be no building envelope available.

Fortunately, this water channel was ruled to be just a ditch with trees and brush growing on both sides and not a stream that needed ecological protection. I had passed my first hurdle. The next step was to get a survey completed that included the boundaries for both lots, the house, and of course the creek. After receiving the “exhibit map” from my surveyor, I met with Metro Water Services Stormwater Development to talk about the width of the easement. According to the table in the “Stormwater Management Manual” if the top width of an open channel is greater than 20 feet, then the easement needs to be 15 feet greater, with a minimum of 5 feet on each side. The employee I met with was thoroughly confused by the easement description and had to consult with her coworker. He understood it simply enough and suggested we put the shorter easement of 5 feet on the side where we want to build and put the larger 10 foot easement on the other side of the creek. That would meet the requirement of 15 feet and give us the maximum building envelope. I was excited with the news. The wheels were in motion.

The next government department on my checklist was Metro Public Works. They had no problems with my proposal, so I headed to the Fire Marshal. After declaring that I was, “in a pickle,” the Marshal said that having the only access to the house from the alley was going to pose problems. The alley needed to be a minimum of 15 feet wide, have a turn-around cross street within 150 feet, and be less than 500 feet from the closest fire hydrant. Our humble alley struck out on all three requirements. Bummer. It was looking like the only home on this property would be an anthill.

After a couple of weeks of brainstorming, I went back to Metro Planning to check on the option of both lots sharing one driveway, or routing a new driveway beside the existing house on that property. Their response was that if the property wasn’t being rezoned or subdivided, so they didn’t really have a role in the process. Yes. I gladly chalked up that response in the “win” category.

I revisited the Fire Marshal and asked him about the new driveway plan. He said that if the driveway is 14 feet wide and they can access it from the street, it will work. However, I do need to have a water flow test conducted on the nearest fire hydrant. Fortunately, the nearest hydrant is about 200 feet away, and it is a white and orange one, which has the highest water pressure. (Side note: Did you know that different colored fire hydrants are coded to reflect the level of water flow? I didn’t.)

I paid another visit to Metro Public Works to ask about the possibility of relocating a guardrail to improve the access to a potential new driveway. They were very accommodating as long as there is indeed a guardrail preventing motorists from driving into the “wet weather conveyance.” But they wondered if a permit would be granted to build on a lot with no street. There was only one more stop to find out the answer, Metro Codes Department, to see if they would issue a building permit.

The gentleman I spoke with at codes said that there wasn’t a street requirement, but I needed to record a driveway easement on the final plat of the lot with the existing house. This easement would allow the new house to build a driveway in the old house’s yard. Since I own both properties this is no problem, however it might be a concern for any future buyers who might not like the neighbor’s driveway cutting through their front yard near the side of the house.

After a lengthy process, it feels like a major victory to know that the vacant lot can be built upon. But now that I know the answer to that question, I have quickly moved on to other questions regarding which is the optimal way to move forward. Do I sell these two properties to a builder / developer who could tear down the existing house and build two larger new construction homes next to each other? Do I keep the existing house as a rental and build another rental next to it? Do I build a new house and sell it?

There are even more potential investment routes to analyze, and I will gladly explore those options in a future post. For now, I’ll savor the victory.