Protecting wetlands could save developers time and money

Did you know, wetlands in Ohio – and possibly in this region? — are disappearing at an alarming rate? Since the late 18th century, most of Ohio’s wetlands have been destroyed or damaged through draining, filling, or other modifications.

Only 10 percent of the original 5 million acres of Ohio’s wetlands remain, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. And local planning and zoning regulations – despite good intentions – aren’t helping.

 Our Vanishing Wetlands – Death by a Thousand Cuts

Wetlands are areas where water covers the soil or is present either at or near the surface of the soil all year or for varying periods of time during the year. Wetlands provide many natural services. They provide a vital service to our rivers, streams, and groundwater by removing contaminants from water, storing floodwaters, creating habitat for plants and animals, and adding natural beauty.

Good Intentions – Less than Ideal Outcomes

MCD preserves natural features in some areas along our rivers – including floodplains and wetlands – to store floodwaters, protect habitat, and filter water runoff. Those natural features – and their benefits – could be included in new developments today through the principle of better site design.

Despite good intentions, local planning and zoning regulations can lead to less than ideal outcomes when it comes to saving wetlands. Regulations, intended to prevent pollution or flooding, can fail to consider the services that natural ecosystems provide. A recent case about two wetlands in a nearby township illustrates this point.

 Township Case

In 2017, a developer went through the normal planning and zoning process for a residential planned unit development (PUD) and received all the necessary permits from the township and county.

While working through the permit process, the developer identified the first wetland – using federal and state wetland inventories – near the construction site.  The developer’s plan left the first wetland intact.

During construction, the developer stumbled upon a second wetland, called a kettle bog, not identified on the wetland inventories. (Kettle bogs form in a depression created when a chunk of glacial ice covered by glacial debris melts away.) The bog was found when a dozer got stuck in the bog while the developer was trying to clear vegetation from the construction site.

Much of the construction site naturally drained toward the bog and then toward the first wetland. Once the developer found the bog, he was required by the permit process to change site drainage plans, forcing him to relocate a cul-de-sac.

Now, here’s the kicker: To comply with existing stormwater requirements, the developer also was required to remove the wetland (excavating 12 feet deep) and install a dry detention basin in place of the kettle bog wetland

Why did the bog have to be destroyed? Couldn’t the bog serve the same purpose as a detention basin? It’s possible, says the local planning administrator. And with the land sloping toward the first wetland, any additional runoff could have been handled as well. Wetlands are great at temporarily storing stormwater runoff and removing contaminants. Why not let the natural wetlands do what they do best?

 

Wetlands are great at temporarily storing stormwater runoff and removing contaminants.

 

Federal Regulations Protecting Wetlands

All projects that involve dredging or filling activities in wetlands require a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Section 404 of the Clean Water Act). Unfortunately, many Ohio wetlands are not yet identified or mapped, as in this case.

It’s probable that situations like this come up frequently in our region, but few planning and zoning authorities have adequate measures in place to ensure wetlands are protected.

 Improving Local Planning and Zoning for Wetlands

In this case, the township planning and zoning administrator wants to revise the township’s regulations with regard to protecting wetlands, including:

  • Require developers to collect soil samples for analysis, if the development is close to a known wetland or if there is reasonable evidence that wetlands may be present on a site.
  • Require the developer to have a professional wetland delineation performed at the development site, if soil samples show the presence of wetland soils.
  • Revise existing stormwater regulations to allow wetlands to be considered as a stormwater solution, when possible.

Revisions like these could have saved the developer a significant amount of time and money. He could have avoided installing a detention pond, stabilizing a road built upon unstable wetland soils, and reworking the street alignments.

And there would be one more vital wetland left in Ohio.

Green development could mean green backs for your community

By Sarah Hippensteel Hall, Ph.D., manager of watershed partnerships

Could your land use plan be holding back your community?

It could if you’re not focusing on balancing water protection with land development.

This region is averaging about 4 more inches of precipitation per year than it did 30 years ago. Stronger storms, heavier rainfalls and destructive erosion are becoming more common. Just a few weeks ago, the region experienced a new record for rainfall for June 14, from 1.29 inches that day to 2.68 inches, according to a Dayton Daily News story.

This region now averages about 4 more inches of precipitation per year than it did 30 years ago.

Businesses looking to grow or relocate want to be sure flooding isn’t an issue. Communities now more than ever need to focus on protecting their water, and mitigating flooding and peak flows.

Studies show green development practices can save money 

According to a 2010 study by the American Society of Landscape Architects, governments are wasting billions of dollars a year by not going green. The report looked at 479 case studies of green development projects around the U.S. and found that in more than 73 percent of the cases, the environmentally friendly solution cost the same or less than traditional development.
According to the study, green development practices:

  • Not only cost less, but these practices can further reduce costs of treating large amounts of polluted runoff.
  • Can help municipalities reduce energy expenses.
  • May reduce flooding and related flood damage.
  • Improve public health — reducing bacteria and pollution in rivers and streams, preventing gastrointestinal illnesses in swimmers and boaters.

Seattle Public Utilities found that using grassed channels; combined with narrowing the roadway, eliminating traditional curb and gutter, and placing sidewalks on only one side of the street garnered a cost savings for the city of 15–25 percent, or $100,000 – $235,000 per block, as compared to conventional stormwater control design (Center for Neighborhood Technology, 2010).

One study found that using green development practices saved 15 to 20 percent in stormwater control costs.

 

Land Use Planning to protect water and maximize economic opportunity

MCD can help communities that want to integrate water protection into their land use plans, zoning code, and subdivision regulations. Amending local codes and ordinances is an important first step to achieving a balance between protecting water and promoting economic development.

Communities often find that their existing development policies conflict with the goal of water protection. For instance, current design calls for

  • Wide streets
  • Expansive parking lots
  • Large-lot subdivisions

Massive parking lots are impenetrable, creating a barrier to groundwater recharge.

All of these create excessive impervious cover, increase flood risk in low lying areas, and provide little room for green space and a natural environment. Incentives for developers to conserve natural areas and consider water protection are generally few and far between.

So what’s the answer?

Better Site Design is an approach to both residential and commercial development that is intended to:

  • Reduce flood risk.
  • Help comply with stormwater regulations.
  • Increase groundwater recharge.
  • Improve stormwater filtration.
  • Reduce erosive flows to streams and rivers.

All of the above can save your community money and create a more marketable product.

Pervious pavers like this driveway in Brookville reduce stormwater runoff and last years longer than concrete. 

How MCD can help

Using a Site Planning Roundtable, MCD staff can guide a community through a consensus process, bringing together local leaders from government, development, and natural resources.

Together, we’ll create development policies that balance water protection and economic development for your community.

The local roundtable will:

  • Identify existing development rules.
  • Compare them to the principles of Better Site Design.
  • Determine if changes can or should be made to current codes and ordinances.
  • Negotiate and reach consensus on what the changes should be.

Let’s get started!

MCD, in partnership with local sponsors, can assist communities during all phases of the Site Planning Roundtable. Call me at 937-223-1278 ext. 3244 and let’s get started!