'Greener' city bars wood chip driveway

Woman fined, told to use asphalt or concrete

By Timothy B. Wheeler Baltimore Sun reporter

January 19, 2010

Maxine Taylor thought she was being "green" by using wood chips instead of asphalt for a driveway on her woodsy front yard in Butchers Hill. The chips happen to let rainfall soak through into the ground, stopping a little of the storm-water pollution that's plaguing Baltimore's harbor.

Maxine Taylor

Maxine Taylor renovated a dilapidated stable to make her home and art studio in Butchers Hill, but cannot park her car in front of it because she covered her driveway with wood chips instead of "impermeable" surfacing such as bricks, pavers, asphalt or concrete. (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis / January 4, 2010)

But instead of winning praise from a City Hall officially committed to a "cleaner, greener Baltimore," Taylor was cited for violating the city's building and zoning codes with her woody driveway. When she appealed the citation, she said, an administrative law judge informed her the only way she could keep vehicles on her property would be on asphalt or concrete.

Taylor's been parking on neighborhood streets since then, and she worries about walking to and from her Saturn in the dark. She paid her $35 fine - knocked down from $66. But she's balking at paving her urban oasis.

"You remember the song [that goes], 'They paved paradise'?" Taylor said, referring to Joni Mitchell's environmental anthem, "Big Yellow Taxi." "That's in my blood."

Taylor's stand draws sympathy and support from environmental activists and neighborhood leaders, who note that Baltimore is spending tax dollars to remove pavement elsewhere in the city in an effort to help clean up the harbor and the Chesapeake Bay. But the city's building and zoning codes haven't caught up with the latest thinking on greening communities.

"This is the kind of trap we're in," says Guy W. Hager of the Parks & People Foundation, a local nonprofit dedicated to enhancing open space in Baltimore's neighborhoods. While many now see the need to reduce the amount of pavement funneling trash and pollution into the harbor, Hager says, the city's laws and regulations do not allow property owners to use gravel, wood chips or other similarly porous materials for driveways, sidewalks and parking pads.

"It's simply another example of Baltimore City officials making the city a difficult place to live," says Barry Glassman, president of the Butchers Hill Association. He calls Taylor a good environmentalist and the city's action against her "totally ridiculous."

Cheron Porter, spokeswoman for Baltimore Housing, which enforces the city's building and zoning codes, is unapologetic.

"There's a law in place, and so we follow the law," she said. The zoning code prescribes a "dustless all-weather material" for surfacing driveways and parking pads, while the building code specifies that the surface must be "asphalt, brick, concrete, macadam or stone block."

Such pavement requirements have been in place for years, if not decades, out of concern for limiting dust and weeds in the urban environment. But experts recognize now that rainfall washing off streets, roofs, driveways and parking lots is a major source of pollution fouling streams and the bay. As it's funneled into storm drains, the rain carries with it dirt, oil, animal feces and other debris and contaminants. The storm drains empty unfiltered into nearby streams and the harbor, rendering them unsafe for wading and swimming.

Glassman, the Butchers Hill civic leader, says the city ought to be more flexible in how it interprets its codes.

"If you take the law to the absolute letter of impermeable surfaces for parking pads, yes, she was in violation. If you show common sense and say, 'Yes, she did cover her front yard where she parks with a permeable surface so it absorbs rainwater and it doesn't run into the bay,' then she's being a good environmentalist."

Taylor, 64, a painter whose day job is with the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, that the environment wasn't her first concern when she first put wood chips down for parking. That was in 1997, when she moved into the rundown former stable she'd converted into a home and art studio. Wood chips were mainly an economic move, she explains, since she'd poured most of her savings into rehabilitating the derelict structure on North Madeira Street. But using a natural material for pavement also suited her aesthetic sensibility, she says.

"I thought there was way too much concrete," she said. "I didn't know about sustainability or runoff. I was just trying to be ... what's today's word? 'Green'?"

Besides the woody parking pad, she's landscaped the front yard. She planted maples, mimosa, even a crape myrtle - so many trees, in fact, that she's cutting some down because they're crowding each other. She says her neighbors seem to like what she's done with her place, putting it on Butchers Hill home tours twice.

The city didn't seem to mind, either - at least until last April, when an inspector showed up in response to a complaint called in to the city's 311 switchboard.

Some city officials are sympathetic but say they're caught in a bind.

Beth Strommen, manager of the city's Office of Sustainability, says municipal officials have come to recognize that paving everything "doesn't necessarily make for a very attractive city, and it doesn't help with water quality, either."

The city's Sustainability Plan, adopted last year by the City Council, calls for removing more "impervious surfaces" or pavement citywide to reduce the amount of polluted storm water fouling the harbor and Baltimore's three main surface streams - the Gwynns Falls, the Jones Falls and Herring Run. Since most of the city's land is in private hands, the plan also proposes to get residents and businesses to collect and treat storm water on their own property.

The Parks & People Foundation, with the city and other groups, has removed about 20 acres of pavement in school parking lots citywide and planted trees, grass and flowers to soak up rainfall that used to simply run into storm drains. Using government and private grants, the partnership also has created street-side rain gardens in a West Baltimore neighborhood, removing sections of curb and a few parking spaces to divert at least some rainwater from storm drains.

On private property, though, the city is behind the times - and its own Sustainability Plan. While its codes do allow driveways of brick, stone block or even concrete pavers that would let some water seep through, the city doesn't permit more porous materials, such as gravel, crushed stone or wood chips. David Tanner, the city's chief of zoning, says municipal officials have offered to advise Taylor on how to redo her driveway and parking area to comply with the codes - though he acknowledges it would require at least some additional expense on her part.

But wood chips are seen by some as a particularly eco-friendly alternative to pavement, and they are not only accepted but encouraged in some locales. Falls Church, Va., for instance, offers its residents free wood chips, and it provides tips on using them to build unpaved parking areas and driveways, among other things.

"It's something that'll absorb water and probably work pretty well," says Neil Weinstein, executive director of the Low Impact Development Center, a Beltsville-based nonprofit group that promotes more environmentally friendly building techniques.

The city is slowly catching up with its "cleaner, greener" motto. Planners are in the process of updating the zoning code, which hasn't been revised since the 1970s. Laurie Feinberg, chief of comprehensive planning, says the "dustless" driveway language is "definitely going."

"There are lots of sustainability issues that need to be fixed," she said. Officials hope to have all the proposed changes to the zoning code drafted by next month, where they'll be subject to public review and comment before adoption, perhaps later in the year.

But that would only fix half the problem, Feinberg points out, since the building code is under the purview of the housing department.

"We don't disagree with her," Feinberg says, of Taylor's assertion that what she's doing ought to be legal. But until all the codes are officially changed, she adds, "there's nothing we can do. She has to deal with the here and now."

Copyright © 2010, The Baltimore Sun

(Revised January 2010)