Rain barrels raise a question: Is it better to be ‘green’ or nice looking?

08/15/2013 12:32 PM

08/15/2013 12:32 PM

The Justus family back yard in the Oak Park neighborhood of Overland Park could be considered a success story in water conservation. The one-third acre corner lot is lush with flowers and vegetables. Seventeen rain barrels can capture as much as 900 gallons of water at a time, and 15 other barrels have been converted to planters with water reservoirs.

Lisa Hays Justus conservatively figures that she and her husband, Billy, have kept 7,000 to 10,000 gallons of water a year out of the city’s storm sewers. The garden has been so successful that neighbors often drop by with questions. Justus said she’s given more than 50 tours and that her garden has inspired others to install their own barrels.

But there’s a problem. A neighbor has complained that the blue barrels are an eyesore, especially during winter months when vegetation doesn’t screen them.

So now city officials are grappling with a policy issue: How to encourage water conservation on one hand while ensuring nice looking yards and property values on the other.

The complaint has been bouncing around since April, when the barrels were more visible, Justus said. A code compliance officer came out to inspect the barrels, some of which are under the deck. The officer didn’t find that there was a violation, so Justus said she thought the case was closed.

However, the neighbor pressed the issue with city council members. Last week, the council’s community development committee considered how rain barrels fit into a city code that generally frowns upon unscreened outdoor storage.

The city encourages rain barrels. In fact, the city will pay a 50 percent match on rain barrels as part of a program to slow down the runoff into storm sewers. Barrels, rain gardens and native plantings are partially reimbursed because they allow sediment to settle out of the water before it enters streams and rivers.

Rain barrels have become more popular with residents, said Jack Messer, director of the city’s planning and development services. Even so, a complaint about a rain barrel is relatively rare, he said. He estimated that fewer than 10 of about 500 cases dealing with outdoor storage involved rain barrels.

City regulations on the barrels are still evolving. So far, city officials have relied on an interpretation of the ordinance for other storage. That interpretation says the barrels should be originally manufactured as rain barrels, no more than 55 gallons, adjacent to the building, reasonably screened and free of stagnant water.

Councilman Curt Skoog said he generally supports the idea of rain barrels. “I think it’s super cool,” he said. But rain barrels shouldn’t be treated differently from other outdoor storage, he added. “When the neighbors have to look at that across the fence line in winter is that in the spirit of the ordinances we’ve had?”

Councilman Terry Goodman worried that using an interpretation rather than having a specific ordinance with a formal appeals process would leave the city open to lawsuits.

However, Councilman Richard Collins said there shouldn’t be a problem if the barrels are properly screened.

And Councilman David White said he is conflicted about the need to regulate private back yards. “You don’t buy a property for the view out the back yard,” he said.

Lisa Hays Justus said her yard’s conversion began in 2008, when a nephew lived with her while attending college. That nephew added the first rain barrel and a number of other things that got the Justus yard certified as a National Wildlife Habitat through the National Wildlife Federation.

The house, west of the Overland Park Regional Medical Center, has a terraced back yard that abuts a city green area.

Billy Justus, who works in industrial caves all day, wanted something to do after work that got him outdoors, she said. So most of the garden terraces and creations have been his doing.

Justus said she’s been told that painting the rain barrels might solve the problem. But painting is not environmentally friendly, either, she said.

“Any water that leaves our yard goes directly into the storm water system,” she said.

She said she’s disappointed that the environment doesn’t take precedence over aesthetics in the city’s discussions. “What I would wish is that Overland Park decides to become a progressive community and develop an environmental policy for the city,” she said.

The committee reached no specific conclusion, but may consider writing an ordinance on rain barrels later this fall.

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