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The Iowa legislative bulldozer is rolling again
In recent years, I’ve frequently referred to our Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature as a bulldozer, swiftly shoving bills to passage while running over Iowans who object.
Now, GOP lawmakers are rushing to do some actual earthmoving.
A bill that’s already passed the Iowa Senate would prohibit cities and counties from adopting ordinances requiring builders to put topsoil back on completed construction sites. The bill would also ban stricter local ordinances on the handling of stormwater runoff from new developments.
Not surprisingly, Republicans are siding with business and building interests who don’t like the local ordinances. They argue the rules increase costs and home prices. But what about the costs born by homeowners dealing with dysfunctional yards planted on compacted clay, folks hit with flash flooding events and the further degradation of Iowa’s water quality?
GOP lawmakers don’t care, so long as their friends reap a bigger profit.
We’ve seen this saga play out before.
Roughly nine years ago you may recall my reporting on the demise of a state rule requiring builders who hold a certain stormwater permit to put four inches of topsoil back on finished construction sites, including new homes. Topsoil gets scraped away during the construction process, leaving behind compacted clay. That makes it easier for builders to use heavy equipment on building sites.
But topsoil soaks up water, helping control runoff and lessen its effects on water quality and flooding. Water runs off compacted clay a lot like it runs off concrete. That’s bad news when heavy rainfall brings a flash flooding threat.
So the loss of topsoil is bad for the environment and bad for Iowans. Homeowners are left with clay yards where grass doesn’t grow without heavy use of fertilizer and watering. Your home may have been built on what was once fertile farmland, but you’ll need to buy dirt someplace else to amend the clay if you want to grow anything. Imagine, Iowans having buying soil at Home Depot.
Requiring replacement of some of the soil made sense. So, naturally, Republicans set out to kill the rule.
The Branstad administration appointed a “stakeholder” panel in 2014 to review the rule. It was packed with members representing homebuilding interests and met largely behind closed doors. Dozens of Iowans weighed in favor of keeping the rule, but they were no match for a handful of builders, developers, Realtors and earthmovers who wanted the rule scrapped.
So the stakeholder group recommended getting rid of the rule, replacing it with wording directing builders to restore soil only if it’s economically “feasible.” Guess how often it’s feasible. The Environmental Protection Commission, among the most ironically named entities in state government, voted to accept that recommendation.
The lone saving grace was that local governments still had the power to enact topsoil requirements. Cedar Rapids was one of the communities that did just that, requiring builders to replace four inches of topsoil. That made sense as part of the city’s broader efforts to improve its stormwater systems in a wake of severe flash flooding events.
But our Golden Dome of Wisdom, now redder than ever, has never seen a local government initiative it won’t gut on behalf of its political allies.
Beyond banning local topsoil ordinances, the bill would prohibit ordinances that exceed state rules for stormwater retention and flow rates for housing and other types of developments. It would basically set one low regulatory bar for properly handling stormwater runoff.
But here’s the problem. If a new development governed by more lax rules is built uphill from areas designed based on more stringent local retention and flow rate rules, the uphill development will deluge neighborhoods unequipped to handle that much water. It will be cities, and taxpayers, who will have to pony up to fix the problems.
“This legislation from developers likely will pass stormwater runoff problems onto cities to mitigate after development is completed. Ultimately passing the burden onto local taxpayers. The legislation was introduced and approved in a rapid manner in the Senate with very little debate on the potential impacts that these changes could have on infrastructure, local and downstream flooding, streambank erosion and water quality,” the Iowa Stormwater Education Partnership said in a statement.
A House subcommittee advanced the bill on Thursday. Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids, was a subcommittee member and said most Iowans who showed up to comment on the bill oppose its passage. He still holds out hope the bill can be amended to lessen its effects. He’s more optimistic than I am.
“There is going to be a lot of erosion and flooding downhill,” said Staed, who voted against advancing the bill. “I don’t think this is the way to go at all.”
When the bill clears the House Local Government Committee, as expected, it can be debated by the full House as soon as this week. If it’s not amended, it will go straight to Gov. Kim Reynolds. She’ll sign it, as surely as water runs downhill.
The small number of groups backing the bill have some clout. The Master Builders of Iowa PAC, IIPAC, the political arm of the Association of Business and Industry, and the Manufactured Housing Association PAC donated nearly $100,000 combined to three top Republican legislative leaders, House Speaker Pat Grassley, Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver and House Majority Leader Matt Windschitl.
On Jan. 6, the Association of Business and Industry hosted a legislative reception at the Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center in Des Moines where the group spent more than $12,000 on food and drinks.
Why spread topsoil around when it’s far easier to spread money around?
So the bulldozer is rolling, folks. Even if were able to move heaven and earth, there’s probably no stopping it.
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