Driveway the wrong way


he water that runs off streets, parking lots and other hard surfaces when it rains is a major contributor to water pollution. There's not much doubt about that. Just take a look at the floating debris in the Inner Harbor after a thunderstorm. Now imagine the road salt, chemicals, pet droppings and other pollutants contained in runoff that can't be observed so easily.

Butchers Hill resident Maxine Taylor no doubt thought that she was striking a blow on behalf of the Chesapeake Bay when she chose to create a driveway of wood chips instead of concrete or asphalt in order to slow down the flow of runoff into local streams. But, as reporter Timothy Wheeler recently chronicled, city officials who claim to seek a "cleaner, greener Baltimore" have summarily rejected her environmentally friendly approach - and fined her to boot.


Who is in the right? In a sense, neither. Creating a permeable driveway is entirely appropriate, but just like any other city resident, Ms. Taylor is constrained by the city's building code that stipulates "dustless, all-weather material" for driveways. Wood chips don't fit the bill.

But perhaps they should. City officials have failed to revise a code - written when dust and weeds were the primary concern - to keep up with the 21st century green movement. At a time when cities like Baltimore are trying to reduce the amount of paved surfaces, it makes no sense whatsoever to preserve outdated regulations that prohibit homeowners from taking such an alternative approach.


Indeed, the episode makes one wonder what other antiquated rules might be lurking in building codes everywhere. For instance, Baltimore County is only now considering whether to change county zoning requirements regarding windmills so that homeowners can generate their own power. That should have been done years ago.

City officials say they are in the process of proposing appropriate changes to Baltimore's zoning code, which hasn't been rewritten in more than three decades. The revisions, including those involving permeable driveways, could be adopted later this year.

But that's not an argument for allowing Ms. Taylor to park her car on unapproved wood chips today. City residents can't take the law into their own hands no matter how noble their goals. Today it may be driveways; tomorrow it may be backyard outhouses to cut down on sewage or chicken coops to allow households to be self-sustaining. No doubt neighbors wouldn't be thrilled with either choice.

People can't simply substitute their own judgment for local laws and decide what's in the best interests of the environment without so much as a public hearing. Civil society doesn't work that way. And that's particularly important in a city where people live in close proximity and the choices they make can often have a large and immediate impact on others. Perhaps one wood chip driveway wouldn't be a problem, but a city full of them might. That's why these issues need to be considered systematically and studied thoroughly so the city can have rules that work for everyone. Fortunately, Baltimore officials appear willing to do just that.

So while both Ms. Taylor and the city may be considered in the wrong today, we are confident they'll both be right soon enough. And perhaps local water quality, and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay, will be better for it.

Readers respond

I hope that Ms. Taylor is successful in her efforts in changing the laws. Gravel, wood chips and plain old dirt are much better in absorbing rain water and any unfortunate runoff from cars and the like.