Tests make a case for Cedar Rapids topsoil rule

The former Federal Courthouse on 1st Street SE in downtown Cedar Rapids is now Cedar Rapids City Hall. Shot on Monday, June 4, 2012. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG)
The former Federal Courthouse on 1st Street SE in downtown Cedar Rapids is now Cedar Rapids City Hall. Shot on Monday, June 4, 2012. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette-KCRG)

So Cedar Rapids’ drive to require builders to replace topsoil, or use some other method to make sure finished sites soak up runoff, has been delayed. A city council committee that was supposed to take it up this week has moved its discussion to July.

But for those of us who believe an ordinance is needed to curtail runoff, mitigate flash flooding and improve water quality, the postponement actually is good news.

And that’s because the pause is being spawned by the results of a series of soil quality tests conducted by an independent firm hired by the city. Cedar Rapids hired Team Services, a Des Moines-bases testing company, to sample soil from 26 lots in 13 developments, all built within the last six years by nine developers. The samples came from every quadrant.

With homebuilders insisting the city is trying to solve am overblown or nonexistent problem, and residents sharing stories of dysfunctional, heavily compacted clay yards, city officials decided they needed an independent assessment.

So what did they find? Highly compacted clay. Surprise. Now, they are giving homebuilders time to let the numbers sink in.

“We did find, in most cases, in a majority of sites we tested, they were more densely compacted than we’d like to see and had a higher clay content,” said Jen Winter, Cedar Rapids public works director.

So contrary to those insisting there is no problem, the tests show there is a problem? “Correct,” Winter said.


Winter and Stormwater Coordinator Cara Matteson said officials are still reviewing full test results, which will be detailed at July’s Infrastructure Committee meeting.

Council member Scott Olson, who chairs the committee, said some tested plots were more akin to concrete than soil. “It was shocking how compact the soil was in these newer developments,” said Olson, a longtime commercial Realtor.

“What we’re going to do is continue the dialogue with homebuilders, try and find compromise points, but at this point, we feel that a topsoil ordinance is needed. And the tests verify that,” Olson said. “It reinforces our efforts.”

If only state officials had sought independent perspectives before bulldozing a statewide topsoil rule at the behest of homebuilding interests. The proposed local ordinance would require builders to draft soil quality plans, choosing from several options for making sure finished sites have eight inches of non-compacted soil, tilled soil, compost, other materials or combinations. Builders insist the change would boost the price of homes, although exactly how much has been a moving target.

“We understand it’s going to cost more,” Olson said. “We think it’s small potatoes compared to what it takes for a homeowner to try and grow grass, and what it’s costing the city in the long run in potential stormwater runoff.”

Cedar Rapids knows the costs better than most cities. That’s why it is working with upstream landowners, and why it approved new stormwater fees to encourage runoff control and pay for millions of dollars in storm sewer repairs.

Now, a soil quality ordinance is needed. The tests results don’t lie.

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



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