Some folks are looking hard for more dirt on Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration.
I’m just looking for some in my yard.
Nearly seven years ago, we moved from an older neighborhood in Ames to our newish, late ’90s subdivision on the north side of Marion. When the first spring in our new digs arrived, we set out to do some landscaping, flower beds, bushes, etc.
What we found out fast was that our sod was sitting on thick, compacted clay subsoil. Whatever topsoil had existed before this cornfield became a housing development was pretty much gone. It was an unpleasant surprise. I later learned that builders often strip the topsoil to make it easier to use heavy equipment on a worksite and speed up building. And in many cases, they don’t put much, or any, of it back. Sometimes, the topsoil is sold.
Now, whenever I plant anything in our yard, in fertile Iowa, for Pete’s sake, I have to buy dirt in a bag from a store. And having any decent grass means dumping a bunch of chemicals on my lawn. This is not an unusual story in the sprawling subdivisions of suburban Iowa.
“Most subsoils in Iowa are clay-based. The permeability is low to begin with,” said Joe Griffin, who leads the wastewater permitting program for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “And then run over it a few times with large equipment, that does not increase the permeability. When they’re done building the lots, they put a layer of sod on, which has a layer of topsoil on it. But it’s a small layer, three-quarters of an inch to an inch.”
NEW RULE IN 2012
But in 2012, the DNR adopted a rule Griffin helped write requiring developers and builders who hold a required stormwater “General Permit No. 2” to put 4 inches of topsoil back on a finished construction site. The rule was made after considerable consultation with those builders and developers, who wanted a specific rule clarifying a vague federal rule, which calls for topsoil preservation “unless infeasible.”
The DNR wanted runoff reduction. Topsoil sponges up water that runs swiftly off hard clay. The organic matter means you need less fertilizer, which has an effect on water quality. And if homeowners have a better yard, a quality of life bonus.
But now, some large builders and developers insist the rule is much too expensive, more pricey than they thought it would be. So they approached the Branstad administration. And thanks to the governor’s Executive Order 80, a “stakeholder” group has been formed by his office and the DNR to revisit it.
Back in August 2012, when “EO80,” as it’s known, was signed, I was optimistic. “This could be a good thing, if agency heads appoint a truly broad spectrum of folks to these groups,” I wrote in a column.
But the topsoil group is testing my optimism.
It has seven members, including Creighton Cox, who leads the Homebuilders Association of Greater Des Moines, Hubbell Realty’s Joe Pietruszynski, Chip Classon of Jerry’s Homes and Mark Watkins, vice president of McAnich Corp., a Des Moines earthmoving contractor. Also in the group is Lucy Hershberger of Forever Green Nursery in Coralville, Pat Sauer of the Iowa Stormwater Education Program and Chad Ingels, a member of the state Environmental Protection Commission appointed to that panel by Branstad.
“My opinion is it appears as though the deck is stacked,” said Sauer, who supports the 4-inch rule. Although she’s quick to add that a good compromise is still possible as the group embarks on six to eight weeks of discussions.
I asked Cox, who chairs the group, about that stacked deck.
“None of us picked who was going to be on there,” Cox said. “We all did what the DNR requested and made comments as concerned stakeholders. I believe that would be a question for the governor’s office who appointed the committee.”
Twenty-five people applied to be a part of the group, according to the DNR, including 11 representing cities, which play a big role in enforcing runoff rules. None was appointed. Also not selected were two applicants from the Iowa Department of Transportation, which does a fair amount of earthmoving.
Creation of the stakeholders’ group was announced in January in the Iowa Administrative Bulletin. But unless you’re a bureaucrat, lobbyist or someone who tracks regulations closely, you’ve probably never heard of it, let alone read it.
The topsoil group met April 24 and again on Friday, and at its first meeting, the group decided that its gatherings will be closed to the public. The executive order requires that groups gather public input, which is already flowing into the DNR. And Cox said there will be an open public input session at some point.
“We want to be able to meet as a group and have candid conversation. But we want to be able to have the public input in an organized manner as well,” Cox said.
Stakeholders will make recommendations to the Environmental Protection Commission, which then decides if the rule should be changed. Any changes would have to go through the normal rule-making process, including a review by state lawmakers.
“Everyone’s aware there’s a lot of public interest in this rule,” said Adam Schnieders, the DNR staffer working with the stakeholders group.
Cox says the 4-inch rule is economically infeasible, adding $2,500 to $5,000 to the cost of residential lots. In an article published last fall in the Des Moines Business Record, Rick Tollakson, president and CEO of Hubbell Realty, tabbed the cost at $1,200.
Tollakson called the topsoil rule “silly” and argued that, in reality, it’s farms that cause most of the runoff problems. In the same article, Cox suggested that developers might be allowed to build bigger stormwater retention instead of having to put soil back.
MANY KINDS OF COSTS
Now, I’m not suggesting that these folks are bad guys, or that their issues with the rule aren’t legitimate. It’s understandable that they dislike rising costs. And logistics are a real problem. Developers often must remove topsoil to prepare land, streets and sidewalks for eventual houses, then return it. Then builders must remove it again when building commences, and put it back under the 4-inch rule. All that moving is money.
But there also are costs associated with not putting soil back. There’s the cost for homeowners with what Sauer calls a “dysfunctional yard.” Runoff and water-quality problems carry high costs. Anyone who lives along or near increasingly volatile urban streams knows that runoff isn’t just a farm problem.
Flooding can be very costly, or so I’ve heard.
“We can see what’s happening with all of our urban streams,” Sauer said. “We can see how they’re unraveling. They’re very unstable because of all the flashy flows, because of all the impervious surfaces and compacted soils.”
Sauer cites a soil study in the city of Ankeny by federal and Iowa State University researchers that shows a sharp rise in soil compaction and a drop in organic material starting in the 1980s, when builders began using more heavy equipment. Reversing those trends, and conserving soil and water resources, is in Iowa’s best interest.
“My opinion is the four-inch topsoil is really, really important because of that topsoil’s ability to capture and infiltrate stormwater,” Sauer said.
Sauer thinks a good compromise is possible that could both address developers’ and builders’ concerns about costly earthmoving logistics while still putting topsoil back on finished sites. It can be worked out with state and local officials.
So, I, too, am hanging on to my optimism.
But it also wouldn’t surprise me if the group’s recommendations ultimately are molded out of hard, compacted clay. And contrary to my hopes, the stakeholder process looks more like an escape clause in the regulatory process for business interests and less like an effort to get a broad spectrum of input. At the very least, there’s no way the DNR or the governor’s office should permit these groups to hold closed meetings. And it should be much easier to find out that these groups exist and what they’re doing. Branstad talks a lot about transparency, but this process has too many shadows.
All 13 public comments received by the DNR as of Thursday support the current rule. Most are homeowners who describe struggles with their dysfunctional yards. “Our expectations were high for our new yard due to the fact that our home was built on land that was in agricultural production a year prior to our arrival,” wrote Aaron Crabb of Ankeny. “We were in for a surprise!”
Sounds very familiar.
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