WHEN IS A HOUSE A HOUSE?

Okay, Measure 49 says that an owner of a property in Farm Use Only may build a replacement home on his land. We will be an approved Measure 49 property owner, but to build a replacement home means we must be replacing a home. Got it?

Seems simple enough, but not so fast. Of course, Benton County does not want folks to build a home to replace, say, a tree fort. A camp site. A lean to. A calving shed. We understand, but we have tax records and title history to demonstrate that we’re talking about a real, actual house.

Not good enough. Show us, says the county. But the clock is ticking toward our closing date on the 10 of July, and we would like some confirmation, in writing please, that our house is a house.

So, on this Independence Day weekend, we packed up our gear after a nice weekend at Black Butte and drove to Llewellen — hmm. Is it Avenue? Road? Street? Learned that Highway 20 into Albany is pretty sketchy, but that there is a nice Starbucks in the Safeway in Sweet Home. Also that we don’t have to go all the way to Albany, but can join 34 somewhere around Lebanon and go straight to the Corvallis exit off I 5. This is just good info against the day when we may want to go from the farm to BBR.

We took photos, to show that our “house” has a roof, walls, electricity, plumbing, water, and so on. I think we can all agree that the house is no longer inhabitable, and quite eligible for replacement. Sent the photos, of which these are but two, to the lawyer helping us in our quest.

Now it’s up to Benton County. Tick, tick.IMG_0801

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COWS OR NO COWS?

To begin this discussion, we all need to know that the property is zoned Exclusive Farm Use. Seems pretty clear. No housing subdivision, no teen-age tennis resort (sorry, Jenny); just cows and alfalfa or filbert orchards. So far, so good.

The property has been operating under what’s known as a Farm Tax Deferral Program. This means that, given a threshold income from farming practice on the land, the owner’s taxes are “deferred” on a ten-year revolving schedule. Don’t ask. But the difference between maintaining the farm activity and not amounts to about $8-9,000 per year. That has gotten our family treasurer’s attention.

But seriously, those cows? They are so cute and funny, but they are also cows, producing quantities of cow fertilizer daily, stomping down the fields, and destroying the riparian quality of our own Big Muddy. Hmm. As I pointed out earlier, shifting to sheep would bring new problems. Lease out the land so another farmer could plant and harvest some crop? Really don’t want to go there. And what about cross-fencing? Big expense, big deal.

Yesterday Larry burst into my office with great news. (Yes, he really did “burst” into my office!) We can go Wetlands and Wildlife Habitat Deferral instead! ! ! Huge news.

Remember I told you earlier that we had this dream of reclamation and restoration? Farming cows really wasn’t there, but this? OMG. ODFW, as we’ll call it from here on, will come onto the property, assess the possibilities, provide plans, and, get this, offer financial help in executing said plans. Manage invasive plants. Improve the wetland area, which has already been identified by the county, so this idea sounds feasible, do-able. They are already working on the land immediately to our east, on the other side of Muddy Creek, and are familiar with our piece.

Must curb our enthusiasm, to borrow a phrase. What if they identify some rare plant on which an endangered butterfly lives, and thus find that we can’t build on the property? What if they say I can’t plant a few apple trees? This is the government, after all, and do we want to invite that wolf in the door?

Probably, but we are pretty excited at this moment to think we can realize both my silly little dream of house-with-apple tree, and Nature Conservancy type reclamation.

Now I’ve brought this narrative up to the real today, July 1, 2014. Larry sits in his office waiting for news from the land-use lawyer to discover whether or not the county will issue us a confirmation of her evaluation of Measure 47. Stay tuned!

THE PERIMETER

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So here’s a photo of the “Wood.” Actually, I’m just practicing loading photos onto the blog. Next week, maybe I’ll learn how to put them where I want them?

Saturday, Larry and I wanted to walk the perimeter of the property, having not even seen half of what we are buying (still have to make that “hoping to buy”) There was a light rain — that Oregon mist where you can’t see it coming down, but you definitely get wet. Boots on, we disconnected the hot wire and started out. A truck slowed along the road, stopped, and the driver got out and accosted us.
“You realtors?” He asked
“Nope, we’re buyers.”
“Son of a gun. I tried to get this place couple of years back. Wanted to exchange it for some dairy land I have down in Toledo, there. Yep. This place would look sweet with a nice double-wide slapped on her, but they didn’t want to accept my offer. How much you pay for it?”

Where’s Toledo, I asked Larry after the gentleman had driven away, unsatisfied with respect to his question. Guess people have different visions! We marched on to the corner, as defined by the shores of Muddy Creek. I was surprised to find that it’s more than just a trickle, more like a junior river, maybe 8 – 10 feet wide. It is muddy colored, though, kind of like the Tualatin, if that means anything to you.

We headed south, toward the herd who were sheltering under a grove of oaks, and startled them into a stampede out into the weather. The fence led us around a sharp turn to the west, following the creek, then back south down a steep bank to an oxbow in the water. We had assumed that the cows were fenced off the stream in its entirety, and were disappointed to find that the fence led across a generous loop, thereby offering a nice watering hole to the animals. Of course, completely degraded, nasty. (Not the cows’ fault, of course, they do have to drink somewhere.) Still, we thought we’ll have to revisit the idea of continuing to lease to their owner if he can’t water them some other way. Ugh! And by the way, why doesn’t an electric fence draping into the river electrocute anyone touching the water? Haven’t we all been warned about that sort of thing?

Our animal husbandry doubts are doubled now. In an earlier conversation with the cows’ owner, he enquired if we would consider letting him run sheep as well. “Have to trap the coyotes, we run sheep,” he said. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean “trap the coyotes, round up the cubs, and deliver them to a nice coyote sanctuary elsewhere in the county.” So. Must give this thing more serious thought. While I can imagine the hungry pups, starving to death as their mom chews her leg off trying to escape the steel jaw of the trap, I can also imagine a sweet little lamb being dragged off for the pups dinner, did she not get caught by Farmer McGregor. Mother Nature. What kind of farmers are we?

Down past the wetland part, turn the corner back to the west, up the hill, pant legs getting soaked, remarking that 100 acres is bigger that it looks, discovering more thistles. Holy moly, this place is huge! Right turn again to the north (you following me?) and we ran into an impenetrable thicket of trees and blackberry vines, so had to abandon the actual fence line and strike out cross country to the border with the road.

The point of the exercise now became to figure out a route for a driveway up to the house site. Lots of discussion about cross fencing to keep the animals away from the house and driveway. Rotating them through various sections. Wait a minute. This is getting too complicated. Do we have to keep the cows after all? Hmm. To be continued.

Now I haven’t told you about Larry’s new toy. As Vik said, there will be endless opportunities for him to acquire guy stuff, and this is only the beginning. Well, he bought one of those hand held devices that golfers use to tell them how far it is to the next green, with the purpose of mapping the land and the road. He will, of course, use it for golf, as he has now had the perfect rationale for its purchase. Unless his golf buddies give him too much &*%*) for having such a sissy object. He bought a bundle of stakes and a mallet, too, but it’s hard to discover any golf application for these. And a toy’s a toy, after all.

So we waved our arms and measured and made notes. We did find one potential route for the road, but the reality is that we’ll have to wait to see what a road builder has to say. While waiting to see if we even get the place after all.

Lunch time, and I’m sorry to say that we struck out again. (Except for the first lunch at a Togo’s we haven’t found anything we’d want to make our country-folk hangout in Corvallis. And I can now say that I do not recommend Tommy’s Bar and Grill, either.) I rolled up my soggy pant legs, picked the devil’s darning needles out of my socks, ate an indifferent burger, and we headed home.

LITTLE HOUSE WITH APPLE TREE

A little background: This will be our third home-building project, so we suppose we’re pretty savvy about the process. First time, we bought plans on line, and lived with whatever resulted from a complete lack of attention on our part to the design. Next, our beach house, for which we hired a real live architect, and he did what he could, given the site. Whew, expensive! And while it was a sweet little vacation house, it had some major flaws, which we paid to have corrected as, over time, the ocean gnawed away at the windows, the siding, the roof, the deck. And most recently, our condo build-out. For this we needed an architect for sure, and so far, no problems.

But for the little house with the apple tree, I went back on line for a pre-designed plan. It was in this way that I was introduced to the great, broad, human highway that is Pinterest. I have perhaps a total of 12 Facebook friends, but now have hundreds of Pinterest friends. Or so it seems. Almost every day I get notice that Amanda, from Georgia, has a suggestions for my boards, or that Susan, in New York has ideas to share. This is nice. But even without their help, I identified two or three houses that had the character I’m looking for, and pinned them up.

Enter the amazing Gordon Davis. He and Vik had been curious to see what I’d been talking about, so I sent the info over to their computers. Gordon got busy and came up with another house plan he managed to find that seemed to fit our ideas. A couple of tweaks later, and yeah, looked good. This plan is sold by a company that offers to make alterations in the plan, at, of course, some considerable expense. But Gordon dug in, drew on his vast and wide experience in the building trade. Next day, he invited us to have a look at what he’d done.

We expected a sketch on a brown paper lunch bag, but oh no. You know that thickish tracing paper that artists and architects use? You’ve seen those cute little triangular ruler things that measure scale? The man had gone over to Kinko to reproduce his work in large scale, make copies for us of what looks like a fully realized construction plan.

Okay, so we thought that was huge. How could we even thank him? Well, we couldn’t, because he wasn’t even through yet. Somehow he’d intuited that the ceilings on the commercial plan would be too low. Counting the risers on the stairs to the upper level provided him with this information. See, that’s the sort of thing Larry and I with all our “experience” would never have seen. We’d spend the next years sort of hunkered over in the gloom of our too-low ceilings. Larry, being over 6′ tall, would be banging his head on the door frames. (Exaggerating a little here for comic effect.)

And what about a mud room? Hmm, not that easy, but sure, how about this? The front door was rather narrow, and unwelcoming. Let’s just widen it a bit. How about stacking the washer and dryer? That way we can put the furnace in the mud room, freeing more space in the upstairs loft. From Vik: stairs from the west porch would be nice. See what I mean? Larry and I worried that he was doing too much for us, but have come to believe that he really, honestly, enjoyed the project. Well, he only consults with developers in Alaska, runs a retirement home in Batavia New York, creates beautiful steel sculptures, builds his own beach house, so what else should he do in his spare time but share his talents with us.

What remains for us to close on the property is confirmation from Benton County that Measure 49 does indeed supplant Measure 37 and we can build this little house up on the hill, instead of along the road where the tear-down slumps, unloved, in decay. The clock ticks, and we keep dreaming.

IN WHICH WE DIG FIVE HOLES

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Here are the boys! They believe that they own this property — you can ask them. But first, let me tell you about Paul and Rob, actual people who came out to execute the septic feasibility study:

Paul arrived by way of a flatbed truck on which was a little caterpillar-type backhoe. Paul is somewhere between 48 and 102, hard to say. Hasn’t shaved for a couple of days, darkly tanned, laughing eyes. Farmhand type: skinny. Super friendly and owner of a sly, smart tongue. He set off on his rig up the hill and negotiated all the ruts and furrows on the now-hardened cow-trample in the lower, flood plain section. Across the gullies, no worries.

I was assigned the job of staying behind at the gate to flag down the county official, who would be testing the soil in the trenches that Paul would dig. Rob is also friendly, but after a few moments conversation, it’s clear he works with his head as well as with his hands. I immediately have lots of confidence in him. He drove off up the hill, I following on foot. Hmm. Quite a climb!

The day was warm and sunny. Paul had dug the first hole by the time I arrived up top, and Rob climbed down into it. He stabbed at the soil, holding a color chart to the bits of dirt he collected, and invited us to see what he was noticing. Good news, seems the clay layer is a couple of feet down under loam, which means “Go” on the drain field. (Apparently they don’t care what kind of dirt applies where the tank will be submerged.)

Rob is a musician, plays in a local group, so of course, we chatted about that. “Oh God, Mom,” Jenny moaned when I told her about the day. “Here you go. You’ll invite him to dinner. Why don’t you use our Black Butte place? Here, use Jenny’s room.” She never forgave me for recruiting a couple of additional brothers when Jan and Stephan came to live with us all those years ago. Jenny always makes me laugh.

When Rob went to his car to get the GPS instrument, he came back with his business card on which he’d printed out the names and locations of bands who play in the area. So nice. Maybe I will invite him to dinner.

Enter the cows into this story. The herd was out of sight, having set up camp in the lower pasture adjoining Muddy Creek, but a gang of four had stayed nearby to keep an eye on the proceedings. While Rob was busy with hole One, and Paul and moved on to dig hole Three, they saw their opportunity. A big pile of dirt! Hooray! They began their investigations. This involved testing the soil with the sides of their faces, rubbing their shoulders in it, trying to wallow. They pawed, nosed, using all their sensory equipment to determine if this was salt, perhaps? Some yummy grain? Water? What? Having satisfied themselves with respect to the new dirt, they wandered off and practiced their humping skills on one another. Good luck with that, guys. Guess no one’s told them the repercussions of that nasty little surgery they suffered when they were babies.

Paul dug five holes in all, variously spaced, and Rob did his science in each of them. All good for our chances of building the little farm house I mentioned in my first post. The one with the apple tree in the front yard? We have that nice feeling of having aced our first test. Still to come: a test of the old well and drilling for a new up at the site. But we were about to have the best luck possible in the form of our good friend, Gordon, who has against all sense and reason flung himself into the search for the plan for the house. A story for tomorrow.

SEPTIC SITE FEASIBILITY APPLICATION, WITH COWS

At the gym, Aaron and I discussed a David Brooks column in which he talked about our dependance on “devices” — that we should try to re-learn the childish ability to be deeply in the present. Aaron told a story. He’d been at a wine tasting that weekend at a winery on the Applegate river. He’d wandered away from the gathering and sat on a rock watching the river, saw a snake swim across the river, emerge, and settle on a nearby rock. An Hispanic family was enjoying the sunshine nearby, a couple of kids. Aaron picked up the snake, a large bull snake, and the children approached him. At first they were repelled, but he encouraged them to come closer, to touch the snake. They were shy, but gradually came closer, and he said he loved watching their faces bloom with wonder and joy as they encountered the animal.

This seemed to capture the attitude we’re discovering toward our new land. Except I wouldn’t use a snake as a metaphor for anything I do!

We sat in Larry’s office going through a seven page application for for a septic site feasibility study until we had gone as far as we could without help from Benton County. Later, we sat in the kitchen while I filled out the “good” copy of the form in ink. This included a hand-drawn map, and I did feel a bit like Christopher Robin making a map of treasure for Pooh.

The next day, we wanted to be on the road to Corvallis by 7:00, and almost made it, even with a quick stop at Starbucks, and a visit to the hardware store on 17th for stakes. We had to deliver our part of the request for site feasibility to the realtor, John Shelton, who has to collect signatures from the present owners. First, however, we wanted to get on the property to decide where we’d like to have the house, and thus the test holes.

We managed the electric fence disconnection easily, and noted that the ground has dried significantly. Now it’s hard to walk across the cow-trampled earth, hardened into lumps and holes. But we did come to a stream to cross, and found what we thought a likely spot. Larry got across, and turned to help me. Except that my foot slipped off the grass mound and I plunged in up to my knee. This threw Larry off balance and he crashed backwards. Scary moment as he lay on his back, but it seems he just bruised his tail bone. I swear we will not go again without a length of plank to lay across this treacherous water way. Jenny’s always telling us not to fall, as if we’re old people, or something, and it will be best if she doesn’t learn about this little episode. By the way, the water didn’t reach over my boot top, so that was a bonus.

Up the hill, we located the best place for the house (we think now). Larry thought it would be nice to be more-or-less under one of the large oaks, but to accomplish that would compromise the view. Might not be too smart to build within range of any of those huge branches!

Turned out to be almost impossible to pound the house stake into the ground, but he did his best, and I tied a strip of cloth to act as a flag. We turned to find that we’d acquired a most respectful and curious audience. The cows had joined us and lined up in a neat semi-circle to watch us.

Loving the cows. When we left the stake, they eagerly milled about it. “Hmm … must be something to eat? No, don’t think we like the taste of that flag thing. Hey, let’s all run as fast as we can over to that other pasture. Last one’s a rotten egg!”

In pounding stakes for the test holes, Larry discovered that he could use the work of the ground squirrels to assist, and easily lodged the rest of the stakes where we wanted them. Then, as we were on the clock, we made a quick descent back to the car along one potential road bed. We were a little shocked to find a thriving patch of thistle down on the flood plain. We’ll have to deal with that soon and comprehensively. Not sure there’s a TNC approved method to kill the nasty weed, but I am my father’s daughter, and we’ll find a way.

Blog problems: Haven’t figured out how to include photos. Must call help line. I want to show you the cows!

FARMERS NOW?

Today we bought a farm. Not “the” farm, “a” farm.

And we don’t quite own it yet, and we actually started the process several weeks earlier, but I want to record the process, so I’m calling the indefinite period of time from then to now “today.”

So we’re now farmers now? Larry doesn’t want to name what we will own a “farm.” Let’s say “property,” then. On Llewellyn Road in Corvallis, Oregon. One hundred and one acres. There are cows grazing on the land, but they are not our cows. A field of grass seed ripens along the road, but it is not our grass seed. These farm-like appendages have been leased from the former owners, and we will see if we continue these relationships.

And what will we call this place? I think it’s like a baby, just born, who will have to wait for its name. Right now, we’re not sure what we’ve gotten ourselves into. Tonight, Larry said “it’s Jane’s place,” and I said No. Please don’t say that. It makes me fear that, in his mind, it’s one more madness I’ve dragged him in to. Maybe it is, but . . .

How to understand what has happened? Start back at the airport in Hawaii after seeing David and Caroline, where, having gone through security and steeled myself for the plane trip home, I suddenly knew that what I was returning to, my gorgeous condo in the Crane, was somehow not home. Home would be a small farmhouse on a country road with an apple tree in the front yard, a covered porch, comfortable old furniture and a real fireplace.

I spent the hours on the plane comforting myself with this fantasy. And for the next weeks, I talked about it, laughing, to friends, maybe to the kids, though I can’t remember that. I did say something to a friend, sitting in a theater for Chicks, and she astonished me by saying she understood. “I’m not home yet, either,” she said.

Of course, I also talked to Larry about my little vision thing. To my surprise, and deep pleasure, he got it. We had, as it happens, long discussed the idea of finding a piece of land somewhere, learning it, restoring it, in a sort of Nature Conservancy paradigm. This is what we might talk about while driving through Oregon landscapes, but don’t imagine we’ll actually execute.

And let’s face it. We’re pretty old to be leaping into — okay, we’re seventy-four. Each, that is. Seriously? Friend Tommy Thomsen said this what you do in your fifties. But we didn’t, so here we are.

The land, which we have now named The Hundred Acre Wood (plus one), is profoundly beautiful. As I hope you can see from the header photo. Ancient oak trees, grasses. Oh yeah, thistles and blackberries, too. A resident red-tail hawk. A fox! Lots of birds, as yet unidentified. And of course, the cows. There’s a derelict house on the property, which will have to be torn down (Will has begged us to wait until he can be there to watch).

My intention is to record this adventure as it happens, but I’ll have to warp time a little to bring the events up to the present. This is my first blog on a new site, new manager, and I’m not sure how it will look. I just clicked “preview” in order to proof read, and the header photo did not appear. Will it show up when I check “publish?” We’ll see.

Next issue: We try to plant stakes and meet the cows.