Friday, January 21, 2022

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Guest Commentary

A ‘dirty’ deal on those burdensome regulations


By Randy Evans

You hear a lot of politicians talking these days about burdensome government regulations. Gov. Terry Branstad is one of them.

But a proposed regulation moving through state government leaves citizens with the clear impression that the state is engineering a change that is advantageous to certain businesses while being detrimental to consumers and our environment.

At the heart of the issue is topsoil.

And in Iowa, a state where our topsoil is our biggest natural resource, you would think everyone would be up in arms about this. But if you think that, you would be wrong, because the proposed change is moving all-too quietly through government.

Here’s some background:


Iowa now requires real estate developers and builders to provide at least 4 inches of topsoil across the yards of new homes. Those business owners don’t like the requirement.

They would prefer to operate without the current rule. Maybe it’s because of the cost, or maybe it’s because they would rather use that topsoil elsewhere or sell it.

The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, a state board that is misnamed if you ask me, is made up of members who are selected by Gov. Branstad. The commission is moving ahead with a new regulation that would waive the 4-inch rule if a builder decided it was not feasible.

That’s right. The change in wording in the rule would allow those builders to ignore the 4-inch requirement if they decide it isn’t feasible to abide by the rule. That’s a loophole large enough to drive a bulldozer through.

The effects of this change would be significant for people buying new houses and for the state’s rivers, streams and lakes. And the change represents another troubling signal that while Gov. Branstad likes to assure

Iowans he wants clean water, his actions show otherwise.

The experience of a friend in Marion illustrates the impact of the proposed rule change.

He and his wife bought an almost new house seven years ago—before the 4-inch rule was enacted. When their first spring in their new home rolled around, they tackled some landscaping projects — flower beds, shrubs, etc.

But these Earl Mays found their landscaping efforts to be a struggle.

The topsoil that existed in their yard when it was still a cornfield was pretty much gone. The builder had laid down sod, but it went on top of clay, not topsoil. That made it difficult to grow much of anything there.

The rule for 4 inches of topsoil was enacted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in 2012. The rule was intended to reduce runoff of rainwater and lawn chemicals. Topsoil acts as a giant sponge, soaking up rain.

But yards that are sod and clay aren’t effective sponges. That leads to runoff into storm sewers, which channel the water to streams, rivers and lakes.

Although Iowa’s water quality problems are predominantly a result of intensive agricultural practices, the runoff from yards adds to the fertilizer problems the state is trying to combat.

But some of the state’s biggest homebuilders are pushing for the giant loophole in the topsoil regulation.

The president of Hubbell Realty, a big Des Moines-area builder, has called the 4-inch topsoil rule “silly.” He says it adds about $1,200 to the cost of a new house. Of course, requiring indoor plumbing adds thousands to the cost of a new home, too, but do we really want to make indoor toilets optional, the way they were generations back?

It will cost Iowa hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up our polluted rivers and lakes. It will cost homeowners in money and frustration to deal with yards with little or no topsoil.

And there is another big cost that will come from this topsoil proposal:

Changing the regulation will show that state government is more concerned about the bottom line of some builders and is less concerned about actions that are detrimental to consumers and our state’s all-too-fragile environment. CV

Randy Evans can be reached at


Adieu to the relevance of the Iowa caucus and straw poll?

By Herb Strentz

The Iowa caucus and straw poll have over-stayed their welcome on the nation’s political scene.

That seems to be clear to most people, except for the religious right and the Iowa press.

Exhibit One in the caucus/straw poll demise is the recent Iowa Freedom Summit and its gaggle of supposed candidates for the presidency.

Talk about being boring, predictable, redundant and useless. The Freedom Summit and the news coverage were a political take off on the egotist’s line: “But enough about me. What do you think of me?”

Even The Des Moines Register’s owner and its flagship paper USA TODAY declared: “The Iowa Freedom Summit highlights the influence that social conservatives play in the state’s caucuses.”

Scott Galindez of Reader Supported News offered a harsher take on the Freedom Summit: “I feel sorry for God and pigs. I’m sure [presidential wannabes] will be castrating pigs and demonstrating how they fear god more than the others…

“Iowa Republicans are god fearing, pig castrating, gun toting wackos. Wait, that’s their freshman senator.”

(With regard to U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, Charles Pierce wrote something for Esquire that seems to have eluded an Iowa enamored of Ernst — namely that her dad, uncles and other relatives had received more than $460,000 in government farm subsidies between 1995 and 2009.That works out to more than $30,000 a year in being on the public dole, while Ernst opposes a federal minimum wage that would prove about half that to people trying to work for a living.)

But the Iowa press did pay lots of attention to another wacko, Donald Trump, reporting in straight-faced fashion Trump’s absurd claim that he would have beaten President Obama in the 2012 election.

The Freedom Summit offered little, if anything, that was positive or helpful in screening candidates for the presidency. Register columnist Kathie Obradovich said the best Summit comment was made by a non-candidate, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee. (R-Utah). Basically, Sen. Lee said a presidential candidate needs to stand for something and not be against everything. But apart from him, the Freedom Summit was for God and the Lord and against Obama, and that’s about it.

Immigration reform? Climate change? Crisis in the Middle East? Candidates generally avoided those and other topics. They recognize the risk in saying anything sensible that would, of course, infuriate the religious right and the Iowa GOP. The two are pretty much the same when it comes to the Freedom Summit, the Straw Poll and the GOP caucus.

Yes, of course, it is easy to cherry pick negative online comments about the Iowa religious right — but the stuff quoted above seems increasingly common in the non-Iowan press.

And, yes, plenty of people might say it is wrong to suggest that the Iowa caucus and straw poll have overstayed their welcome on the nation’s political scene. But given the nonsense of the Freedom Summit, here is something even more troubling for the nation: I may be wrong. CV

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.

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