As homeowners become more environmentally conscious, they are leading cities into unfamiliar territory.
In many cases, people are bringing centuries-old practices, such as rainwater harvesting, into modern urban and suburban areas.
Regulations developed for suburbia weren’t written with that in mind, sometimes resulting in red tape as cities catch up with emerging trends.
That’s the case in Richardson, Texas, where a resident wants to collect rainwater for landscape irrigation. Because rain harvesting systems aren’t specifically allowed in the city’s code, the only route was to seek zoning approval. It’s a time-consuming and sometimes costly process that puts people at the mercy of the Plan Commission and the City Council.
“Most city engineers or building officials don’t have a good knowledge or a working knowledge or a history with these things,” said Billy Kniffen, a water resource specialist for the Texas AgriLife Extension Service. “When you’re not familiar with something, there’s going to be a fear of it.”
Michael Precker thought what he and his wife, Ruth, were asking for was simple. As they were planning to replace their landscaping, they wanted to add a drip irrigation system.
“We had this great idea – why not go all the way and use rainwater?” he said. “We just think it’s a good thing, looking to the future of Texas water. We just want to do a little bit of good.”
They already have several 55-gallon rain barrels but wanted something larger.
Precker said city staffers have been nothing but helpful, simply doing their jobs to address an issue new to them. Still, the Preckers may be discouraged from installing the system because the Plan Commission voted to require a cedar fence around the 650-gallon tank. A council public hearing is expected in mid-October.
Sam Chavez, Richardson assistant director of development services, said his staff surveyed peer cities and found few regulations for a rainwater system. This issue, he said, is a visual one, since there will be a tank alongside the home.
“It’s something cities are going to have to start addressing,” he said. “This rain harvesting request is a test case.”
Rainwater harvesting isn’t the only emerging trend cities have been asked to address recently. Wind turbines have become an issue in several suburbs such as Allen and Flower Mound, and Dallas officials have wrestled with whether and how to regulate community gardens and outdoor neighborhood markets.
Whether it’s new technology or incorporating old practices, homebuilding is evolving more quickly than ever. So, as cities try to protect aesthetics and public health, they often move more slowly than the marketplace does.And they rely on organizations that write uniform national standards to address emerging issues, another slow process.
“If something goes wrong, they want to have that backing of the uniform code,” Kniffen said.
Dave Viola, director of special services for the International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials, said his organization is trying to stay current with emerging environmental trends. This year, it published for the first time a “green supplement” to its Uniform Plumbing Code.
“The primary purpose is to identify barriers and to address barriers to green building,” Viola said. “If it’s not addressed [in the code], it’s a barrier.”
The code supplement handles the issue of cross-contamination but exempts systems that don’t connect to treated water. For those that do hook into a house’s overall water system, devices to prevent water from flowing back into city pipes are required.
Kniffen and Darrell McMaster, president of the Texas Rainwater Catchment Association, said they understand the need to protect a city’s treated water system from contamination.
But, McMaster said, there’s little or no risk. He said his organization is working with state officials to set regulations, rather than work city by city to loosen restrictions on rain harvesting.
Kniffen, who uses the sky as his primary source of water, said the rainwater harvesting industry has advanced significantly over the past few years. And cities will eventually catch up.
“Part of the thing we need to do is have inspectors for rainwater systems,” he said. “You get the codes rewritten. You get cities to adopt those codes.”
Those involved with rainwater collection said there’s no question it will become more popular.
“The younger generation is really looking at sustainability,” Kniffen said. “As water becomes more precious, we’re going to have to.”
By IAN McCANN / The Dallas Morning News