DES MOINES — So Iowa’s 4-inch topsoil rule is one step closer to being yanked out by its roots and replaced. That is, unless Iowans raise a ruckus.
“I just ask you to vote for the new rule as the governor has written it,” Chip Classon of Jerry’s Homes told the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission on Wednesday. Classon was among homebuilding interests who dominated a “stakeholder” group picked by Gov. Terry Branstad’s office. The group urged the EPC to scrap a current rule requiring builders to replace 4 inches of topsoil on finished sites.
The EPC voted 8-0 with little discussion to file a notice of intended action kicking off a process that could erase the rule and replace it with new language favored by homebuilders.
The vague new rule would direct builders to restore topsoil, unless “infeasible.” There would be no measurable standard, and infeasibility largely would be in the eye of the builder. The 4-inch rule, created in 2012, was intended to make sure topsoil was replaced on building sites to soak up runoff on the spot and improve water quality. The new rule appears intended to let builders do what they please.
It’s curious, but entirely fitting, to suggest the governor wrote the new rule. It was Gov. Terry Branstad who signed Executive Order 80, allowing the appointment of stakeholder groups to rewrite state regulations. His office did pick this stakeholder group and made sure homebuilding interests controlled the majority. And his staff signed off on the revised rule.
To say he wrote the bill is perhaps a stretch. But he let the writers borrow his pen, and his clout. And Pat Sauer, who leads the Iowa Stormwater Education Program and served as a stakeholder, says whoever wrote the proposed language, it wasn’t what stakeholders voted on last summer.
Sauer, who supports the current rule, offered a good compromise Wednesday that would require builders to file a soil management plan outlining how they intended to handle disturbed topsoil. Seems reasonable. But when the process is stacked in homebuilders’ favor, why compromise? They’ve got votes.
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Still, EPC members pointed out that the public has time to weigh in. Three public hearings will be held in the coming weeks, including one in Cedar Rapids at 6 p.m. March 18 at the City Services Center. It’s possible public outcry could nudge the EPC to think twice and change course.
“It’s up to Iowans,” Sauer said.
If the process goes as planned, the issue could be back in the EPC’s court by as early as May.
The timing of all this also is intriguing. An urban topsoil rule is being scraped away just as state leaders are taking sharp criticism over their failure to do more to curtail farm runoff. The Des Moines Water Works plans to sue three northwest Iowa counties over nitrate pollution, and a parade of critics marched before the EPC Wednesday to demand more be done to clean up Iowa’s water.
In the midst of all of that, tossing the topsoil rule seems like a bad idea. It’s going to be tougher to push farmers to do the right thing and take part in conservation efforts while you’re also letting urban homebuilders off the hook.
Between that dilemma and public outcry, a compromise still might take root.
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