CR soil rule is flexible, but still solid

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While I was in Cleveland a couple of weeks ago, Cedar Rapids’ topsoil ordinance took a step forward, with significant modifications. I’ve been trying to catch up.

From Ohio, I read Brian Morelli’s account of the City Council’s Infrastructure Committee sending a “flexible” ordinance to the full council. I’m certainly pro flexibility, so long as it doesn’t provide a bulldozer-sized loophole for builders and developers. I’m thinking of the toothless state rule, which directs putting dirt back on finished building sites “unless infeasible.”

Surprise, it usually is.

So the city’s original ordinance directed builders to create a soil quality plan choosing among eight methods from the Iowa Stormwater Manual, with the goal of creating an eight inch layer of material that soaks up runoff. It could be topsoil, compost or material mixtures.

Council member Scott Olson, who chairs the committee, said homebuilders responded with a proposal for voluntarily replacing three inches of soil. No mandate.

“We said, ‘Sorry, unless you put something solid on the table, we’re going to go with our eight-inch proposal,’” Olson said. “At the last minute, they came in with four inches of soil mandatory. And it’s going to be one of the choices.”

So along with the eight original options, builders also can stockpile and replace four inches of topsoil, with new sod counting as one inch. This is roughly the same as a state rule scrapped last year and replaced with “unless infeasible.”

“I feel like we still have a good policy and we’re accomplishing what we hope to accomplish,” said Public Works Director Jen Winter.

Winter and Olson assured me there are no “unless infeasible” style loopholes in the proposed ordinance.

As compromises go, it could be worse. It’s still a solid directive to replace soil, or to use other sound methods in instances where there is little or no topsoil. The city’s broader goal of reducing runoff as part of a comprehensive approach to addressing stormwater issues remains on track.

And it beats the stuffing out of the status quo. Look no further than 30 soil tests from local housing developments conducted by an independent agency hired by the city. The tests showed soils with very high clay content, with 97 percent compacted, and unable to soak up more than a paltry .14 inches of rain per hour. Topsoil soaks up a half-inch or more. But not when it’s been stripped away, never to return.

Despite clear evidence of a problem, and the city’s willingness to work with homebuilders, this thing still is no slam-dunk. Some builders are on board, but others are lobbying behind the scenes against the ordinance, Olson said.

And it’s true, the soil requirement will increase the cost of new home. But when did having decent dirt on your lawn become a luxury add-on? Selling homeowners a dysfunctional yard that will take considerable bucks to fix, while also increasing runoff, intensifying flash-flooding and harming water quality, hardly seems like a bargain.

The full council is expected to take up the ordinance in September. Watch out for loophole-seeking bulldozers.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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