Tips on Siting Your Driveway

No matter who you are and where you live, one thing is universal – a driveway is about the most ungratifying and infuriating essential investment you’ll make on your farm. Thirty thousand dollars invested in kitchen cabinets at some level brings us joy. Thirty thousand dollars invested in a driveway leaves us feeling like we’ve been robbed.

And while the object of a driveway is to get you and your guests safely and uneventfully from the public road to your front door, siting one not quite as simple as it seems like it should be. Where your driveway goes doesn’t sound very important, but its placement and function are critical to  your enjoyment of your land. The idea is to combine some level of privacy, efficiency, and aesthetics with safety and affordability, but in reality, there are a lot of trade-offs.

On a town lot, the driveway placement may be fairly obvious, or even figured out for you, but if you’re dealing with raw land, you may be struggling with option overload. It seems to be that the more land you have, the easier it should be to site driveways and structures, but the fact is, the increased number of options can make it more challenging, and ultimately more expensive if you get it wrong. If you’ve purchased raw land, your seemingly unlimited options can be overwhelming, but once you start winnowing out areas that definitely won’t work, site selection becomes a bit more manageable.

A lot of factors go into driveway placement, legal, geological and financial are big ones, but convenience, affordability are also important. And your driveway planning goes in conjunction with your house site planning (and your other infrastructure planning). Everything needs to work together, so be prepared to spend a lot of time, shoe leather and grey matter in getting it right.

If you’re buying farm ground, there may be a house in place, there may not. You may want to build another house, maybe live in the existing house while you build the house you really want. In some instances, if you can use an existing drive, or at least a portion of an existing drive. This can save you a lot of aggravation and expense.

Since there tend to end up being more constraining factors with a driveway, I think it’s easier to start there first, though you’ll go back and forth between house site selection and driveway siting, until you get them both figured out. (Of course if you’re lucky, there may be a single perfect house site, but don’t be afraid to consider other options.)

It seems obvious that the longer the driveway the more expensive it is, but then again, it may be cheaper to go around certain things, than to go through or over them – steep grades or areas that collect water come to mind. And driveways need to maintained, with yearly scraping and gravel with an unpaved drive, and with any driveway, mowing needs to be taken into account. A paved driveway may be an option, but heavy equipment can damage pavement, so needs to be considered.

Your first call should be to state department of transportation. In Virginia, you’ll  apply to VDOT for a land use permit (some other states call them encroachment permits, but it’s the same general process). They’ll send out an engineer who can discuss with you where you can safely put your entrance, based on site lines, traffic speeds, and traffic volume. It’s all about safety in their eyes, yours, and other motorists, but there are often things you can do as a landowner, removing trees for instance, that can increase your options.

Second call is to Miss Utility (http://missutilityofvirginia.com ) or whatever your utility marking service is. This is a free service, and they’re pretty prompt, so there’s really no excuse not to call them. Call them and get used to calling them. When you start building, you’ll be calling them a lot. They’ll mark lines of member utilities – power, phone, gas, etc. Be aware that they will not mark things they don’t control, and that can be a big pain. For instance, they may not mark waterlines if you have a private well. They will not mark your septic lines And they may just call you and tell you that there are no utilities to mark (not unusual on raw land.) And when they do mark utilities, they’ll tell you that there’s a time limit on them. Don’t worry about that part while you’re in the planning stage – the time limit is critical in an active construction site – but when you’re in the planning stage, it doesn’t matter. (You’ll definitely have to worry about the time limits when you start moving dirt). Putting your driveway beside an existing utility right-of way instead of directly on top of one will make it so that nobody needs to tear up your driveway to get to an underground utility. And if utilities aren’t there yet, you’ll need to at least have that thought in mind as you’re siting your house and driveway.

With all that in mind, grab a copy of your survey and start marking out trouble areas, places you have little or no control over – department of transportation access and utilities, easements, and geographical features – a wetland or rock outcrop, that may limit where you can logically or legally place your driveway.

Keep these things in mind as you decide:

  • Check your deedyou may have deed restrictions. There may be other landowners, for instance, who are permitted access.
  • Check with your countyget familiar with the term “set-back”. It’s basically how close you can build things to the property line. And know what your zoning permits. And different municipalities have different standards for driveways, such as grade and width, and these need to be taken into account when you’re planning your drive.
  • Are there any big obstructions? You may have to do some serious math to decide if it’s more cost effective to go around something or to go ever something.
  • If you can, talk to the former landowner, or one of the neighbors. They may know something about the property, like the location of a trash dump (unfortunately, fairly common) or an old well, or a storage tank. There are liable to be some surprises.
  • Will you be dividing off lots or secondary building sites, or will there be other buildings that may need access – a garage, horse barn, or machine shop, for instance.
  • And consider the types of vehicles that may service your house, like trash pick-up, the UPS truck or propane delivery, meter readers.
  • What parts of your farm are being used for production, and what kind of access will it need? A separate entrance for farm implements or construction equipment may be in order.
  • Will there be adequate parking for you family and your guests?
  • Kids gravitate towards driveways? Will they be safe?
  • Will you have a gate at the entrance? If so, will there be access for emergency equipment?
  • If it’s a long driveway, you’ll need to have a couple of pull-offs, so cars can pass.
  • Are you fencing the property?
  • Now is a good time to decide where your mailbox will go.
  • And you may also want a few lanes – unimproved access to areas for occasional use. These unimproved lanes can give emergency equipment access to to portions of your farm, or be used for recreational purposes, as part of a trail network, or to get to a fishing hole
  • And now is a good time for a reminder that this is all on paper, and you can change it a thousand times and (note to spouse) it doesn’t count as changing your mind. Other than your time, it’s free. But the minute the first draft comes back from the architect, or the first scoop is made by the dozer operator, it’s costing money then and the price goes up.

So with all this clanging around in your head, get some survey flags and your hiking boots and start walking and sketching and flagging and walking some more. You’ll have several things to site before you start building, and expect to do this flagging, and walking and sketching perhaps dozens of times. Before you call in any architects or builders, sketch it out, walk it, take notes, sketch it out again. You may not have the final plan when you call, but you’ll probably have a pretty good idea of where things can go.

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