Senate sends bill restricting local topsoil, stormwater rules to governor; Bettendorf senator pushed bill

by Robin Opsahl, Iowa Capital Dispatch
March 25, 2024

The Iowa Senate on Monday sent a bill to the governor’s desk restricting stormwater and topsoil regulations, a measure Democrats say unfairly limits local control.

The Senate approved Senate File 455 on a 29-18 vote. The bill would ban local regulations that are more restrictive than state and federal guidelines on stormwater runoff and topsoil preservation, compaction, placement or depth.

Runoff regulations would be required to be at or less restrictive than those based on flow rates calculated using return frequencies of five years, and topsoil rules would have to stay at or below requirements set by the Department of Natural Resources and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

The House passed the bill earlier in March after an initial failed attempt, amending it to allow local governments to breach these regulatory limits if the city or county pays for any increased development costs that arise from the higher standards.

During the Senate floor debate, Sen. Mike Bousselot, R-Ankeny, said the bill addresses higher housing costs in Iowa and the need for affordable housing.

“We have an opportunity today to address an area that is a cost driver — a regulation, that drives up the cost on a per-house basis for working Iowans, Iowans who want to stay in small communities, who want to stay in Clear Lake, want to stay in Algona,” Bousselot said.

But Sen. Janice Weiner, D-Iowa City, said the measure will hurt Iowa homeowners and community members — as the cost of higher restrictions would likely be financed through local taxes.

“I see this bill as not being about affordable housing, which some may talk about,” Weiner said. “I don’t think that the cost per lot … to require more restrictions is that great. And if we want to figure out another way to pass along that cost, let’s leave that up to the communities to let them decide. What I care about is the fact that we, the Legislature, are going to be passing these costs on to ordinary citizens, homeowners, your friends and neighbors, because they’re the ones who will ultimately pay now.”

While Republicans argued that higher regulations were driving up the costs of building homes throughout the state for both developers and homeowners, Sen. Claire Celsi, R-West Des Moines, said it is possible to have “affordable housing projects in Iowa with smart building and development” that meet local regulations.

“It has to be thought out ahead of time, it has to be planned, but there is no reason why builders and developers cannot incorporate smart storm water practices into their building practices,” Celsi said. “Otherwise, they’ll end up with basements full of dirt.”

During House debate on the bill, multiple Democrats spoke about the need in some communities for higher standards than were allowed under the bill, measures that are aimed at mitigating harm to residents and property damage with more frequent floods and other extreme weather events.

Sen. Scott Webster, R-Bettendorf, who owns a home building business, criticized local government’s topsoil and stormwater regulations as “more government regulation” that does not substantially prevent damage, he said, pointing to the example of cities increasing capacities for stormwater retention ponds, as not being a necessary part of local housing regulations.

“That’s what building regulations should be — life, health and safety,” he said. “And I will tell you, if you double the size of a retention pond, and you make it more expensive for everybody else, it doesn’t save lives. It doesn’t save anybody’s health. And it isn’t any safer.”

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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