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With the input of NAHB members, recommended best practices from the Department of Transportation (DOT) for safe development near gas and oil pipelines have veered away from mandated, prescribed setback distances in favor of a risk-informed approach to land development.
As an alternative to community-adopted development requirements, the DOT’s best practices encourage developers, pipeline operators and local governments to work together early in the development planning process to help prevent explosions by establishing what development activities are appropriate and inappropriate in the vicinity of pipelines.
The issue of new development near pipelines was raised by Congress when it asked the DOT to study land use practices, zoning ordinances and the preservation of environmental resources in relation to pipeline right-of-ways.
NAHB first started working on this issue when it joined a group of stakeholders that produced a report in 2004 — “Transmission Pipelines and Land Use: A Risk-Informed Approach” — in response to the Pipeline Safety Improvement Act of 2002.
To pursue the issue, DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration formed the Pipelines and Informed Planning Alliance (PIPA) in 2007, with broad representation from local governments, developers, environmental organizations, transmission pipeline operators and federal agencies.
NAHB has been the only real estate-related organization participating in the PIPA meetings, with most of the other attendees representing pipeline industry executives and groups.
Bruce Boncke, chairman of NAHB’s Land Development Committee in 2003 and a civil engineer from Rochester, N.Y., has served as the association’s representative on the PIPA Steering Committee charged with addressing the hazards of development near pipelines.
Pipelines are used to distribute an estimated 66% of all oil and 100% of natural gas in the U.S., and the network of pipelines has expanded dramatically over the past 20 years along with the consumption of oil, refined gasoline and, in particular, natural gas.
This has created a prescription for disaster in some places, such as expanding suburbs. The committee found homes that were actually built on top of pipeline easements.
A recent explosion in San Bruno, Calif., that destroyed property and took lives demonstrates the urgency of addressing this problem.
Boncke said that the PIPA committee has observed first-hand a range of land-use practices, some of which recognize the need for keeping development at a safe distance from pipelines that raise the possibility of “truly frightening scenarios.”
“In one location, we saw homes located quite near a high-volume, high-flow petroleum pipeline that had ruptured during construction of the homes,” he said. “Six unfinished homes were doused with over 20,000 gallons of gasoline, which by some miracle did not ignite and cause injuries.”
The DOT is scheduled to publish a final report by the end of the year on its Office of Pipeline Safety website.
An overview by Boncke is available to subscribers of NAHB's Land Development magazine in the current issue.
For more information, email Ed Tombari at NAHB, or call him at 800-368-5242 x8309.