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How I fought (and won the right) for my gravel driveway

Marc Lefkowitz  |  09/02/09 @ 4:00pm  |  Posted in Home landscaping

The story of how I convinced the City of Cleveland Heights to grant us a variance to replace an old, ugly, asphalt driveway with a beautiful, sustainable, gravel drive-and why we bothered-has its share of twists and turns and ultimately, an acquiescence. One thing is for certain, without six years of knowledge gained while working at EcoCity Cleveland and now at the GreenCityBlueLake Institute, I would not have acquired the skills and confidence to present a case for a building code variance and see it through to the end. Everything I know about sustainability and an emerging field called green infrastructure-permeable pavement and gravel surfaces, rain gardens, rain barrels, even restoring native ecosystems in our yard-I learned as web editor at GCBL.

This all started more than a year ago when my wife, Corrie Slawson, and I decided our crumbling asphalt drive was a hazard and an eyesore and had to go. We hadn't resurfaced it because a tall white oak tree was practically growing through the drive-we knew that any hardscape surface would meet with the same heaving and cracking fate.

I found out pretty early on that the city has an ordinance that forbids property owners to go from impermeable surfaces like asphalt to gravel or crushed limestone. I started speaking to neighbors, other residents and professionals, from ecologists to urban planners, who all offered support, but didn't hold out much hope. No other property owner had successfully turned back the clock like this (since we've completed the drive, countless neighbors and well-wishers have stopped by to congratulate us and say they want a gravel drive).

Let's face it, as individuals we often feel powerless to change the rules. I had a nagging suspicion the city wouldn't let us remove the asphalt for gravel, even to save a 100-foot-tall oak tree on our property. Convincing certain departments at the city that green infrastructure plays a valuable role in fulfilling its commitment to become a green city on a blue lake was going to be a tough sell. Even though Cleveland Heights is a signatory of the U.S. Mayor's Climate Protection Agreement; even though our mayor, Ed Kelley, is chair of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority board; even though Cleveland Heights has a national reputation as a haven for environmentalists and social progressives; even though half a dozen gravel driveways can still be found on our street, I knew we would need a well-rounded, well-reasoned case not just because it was 'doing the right thing'.

Since I was blazing a trail here, I'll share some of my strategy and the lessons learned, starting with, you don't really know what it will take until you get going. This is the first home I've owned-I grew up in a new construction house where we didn't have the concerns of 90-year old home and property. What I did have going for me was some experience observing government. This was going to take a strong stomach to see it done.

First, we had to file for a variance with the Cleveland Heights Building Department and present our case before the city's Board of Building Review. That may sound intimidating, and I know many people would have taken a different route, but I'm stubbornly committed to greening my yard. I cannot guarantee you the same results, but if you are flexible but firm, listen for the important feedback, put in personal time to do research and presentations, and not take personally what sometimes feels like bureaucratic roadblocks aimed to discourage-you will up your chances. Most of all, you have to believe what you're doing is the right thing-for you, your property, your neighborhood and your community.

I recommend that you start by writing a letter to the city explaining your circumstances. I tried to keep our letter focused mostly to the facts about what made this an exceptional case. That said, I suspected from conversations, that I had support from some at the city because this would set a green example. So, I did some internet research and peppered my letter with facts like oak trees provide valuable services such as sequestering 1-ton of carbon over its lifetime, provides shade and cooling, provides food for a diverse ecosystem and sucks up tons of stormwater -all for free.

I included that we spoke to a tree expert who confirmed the asphalt on top of the tree's 'root flare' was detrimental for the tree. An important part for our case, though, was that we had already planned to kill off our weed-choked front yard and plant a native shade garden. We decided it was worth our time to hire a landscape architect to draw up a plan which included what type of trees and groundcover to plant and where. The plan includes a gravel patio and stepping stone path that works in concert with the gravel drive. So, we submitted the plan to the city along with our driveway variance request and my letter. Here's a link to my letter stating our case to the city.

I also thought it would bolster our case if I could show how much stormwater filters through gravel versus concrete. The important concern to municipal sewer districts is the 'first flush' of rain, or, how much water runs right off the paved surface into the storm drain in a given period of time. It has to go somewhere, and it turns out our region's thousands of roads and driveways are producing hundreds of millions of gallons of water that have to be processed by our water treatment plants which filter out toxins like motor oil leaks from our cars. During heavy rains, rain running off surfaces does nasty things to stream beds and does harm to fish, frogs, etc.

Would a gravel driveway be greener? Would it let more water filter into the ground and recharge the local aquifer? The simple answer is 'yes'. With some help from a co-worker, we created a spreadsheet to figure out how much. We took an industry accepted coefficient of infiltration, a measure of the Area of the drive, and ran the scenario for volumes of water in that first flush. We estimated that resurfacing our 675 sq. ft. drive in gravel would reduce runoff by 156 gallons or 43% from the first flush or 1-inch rain event.

I was feeling pretty good at this point. I called the Building Department and asked to appear on the Board of Building Appeals' schedule. The board meets once a month at City Hall, immediately after the Board of Zoning Appeals, around 4:30 p.m. (give or take, depending on how many zoning appeals are on the agenda). The board consists of four appointees, a mix of gentlemen who appeared to have building and architectural backgrounds. The fifth member of the board is Anthony Carbone, director of the Building Department, and the main point of contact. The board defers to Mr. Carbone on questions of the building code. I mailed them copies including my letter, color images of the driveway and the landscape plan two weeks in advance, and brought extra copies.

Sitting before the board, I briefly explained the case, focusing on the tree's position. Even though we planned to move the curb cut three feet away from the tree, we still expected the roots to buckle concrete or asphalt. After five minutes, board member Mark Fremont indicated that he agreed that a gravel drive would not detrimentally impact the neighborhood, and that losing the tree would be bad. Good start, I thought.

Then, Mr. Carbone asked about the bearing weight of gravel and about maintenance. His concern was that emergency vehicles could pull into a gravel drive without sinking. And he wanted to know what type of edging we proposed to use to keep the gravel from rolling away. I had a sinking feeling. But, I was also determined to hear them out and find a reasonable solution even when other members piped in about hiring a civil engineer to design a system that matched Ohio Department of Transportation standards. Whoa! Wait a minute here. Was I being held to a higher standard than someone with a concrete drive?

I thought about it for a minute and realized, this is something new and this process was about making an exception not a new rule. As much as I wanted the city to set a new, green infrastructure policy, suddenly, I would be lucky if I convinced them not to make me hire an engineer.

But, as we discussed it, it was suggested by board member Rich Bozic that maybe I could find ODOT's specification for a gravel road. The concern was to match the ODOT spec for compressive strength. This seemed more reasonable than hiring a civil engineer! It took me a couple of hours hunting around on the Internet, but I tracked down ODOT item 304 Aggregate Base, the spec for gravel road installation. I got on the horn with our contractor (who, ironically, installs concrete driveways for a living) and, after he was done laughing at the city's audacity, told me we could rent a 3-ton vibratory roller to compact the sub-base layer of stone. Mr. Carbone also asked us to have the compressive strength of the new drive tested by an independent agency.

A word about our contractor, Ted Pontremoli, my wife's uncle. He's the only concrete contractor I know who plays tennis, can quote Keith Olberman and who got us John Stewart's book, "America" for the Holidays. That said, he was pretty skeptical at first about going down the gravel road. But, I'll give him most of the credit; once we started, he got really excited about the details of how to excavate, grade, roll, and tamp the soil, sub and top coats. He even found us crushed recycled concrete #4 stone for the sub-base layer at Boyas, a supplier in the Valley.

The key was involving a professional with twenty years of experience-what we didn't want was an unshapely and unsightly mound of gravel that rolls all over the sidewalk and yard. Ted made sure the driveway was level with the sidewalk and compact-it's been four months since we finished and barely a stone moves from the end of the drive. The best part is we improved the curb appeal of our property by orders of magnitude, and we're a living example that green infrastructure can be beautiful and structurally sound. That and the soft crunching sound it makes when my bike tires roll over it at the end of my commute!

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