Do Housing Developers "Steal" Top Soil From Housing Sites?

A friend recently closed on a new house that stradles a sizeable chunk of land. Walking around the place with her, I was struck at how thin the top soil was–and this is farm country. That got us talking about other friends we know who live in (upscale) housing developments/communities where the lots appear to have had their top soil carted away prior to construction.

That same day, I asked her builder if his company deliberately removed the top soil and he said no, doing so isn’t worth their time. I pointed out that the soil was only a half-inch thick and he mumbled something lame and drove away.

Last week, however, I ran across a builder from another city who said that, yes, most developers and/or builders routinely strip the top soil from housing lots, then sell it to excavation companies in bulk. Large developments can yield lots of extra money, he said. He also said that homeowners have the right to demand replacement of their top soil, though proving how much was taken is impossible.

Urban legend or no?

An emphatic “yes” here in Central Illinois. The developer (or contractor) routinely strips off the topsoil and sells it. It’s part of the deal.

My parents are living in a 1990’s split-level that was nothing but pure clay subsoil in the front and back yards when they moved in, the entire 18" of good black Illinois dirt having been carefully removed by the builder. And he did the same thing to everyone else in the subdivision, and nobody seems to think there was anything strange about it. “S.O.P.”, everybody shrugs, as they all stand around their front lawns cheering on the struggling blades of grass. “Look! Here comes one now!”

A few years back the township where I lived installed a storm sewer down the street. The contractor stripped the topsoil for where the ditch was to go and trucked it off. Then they dug the ditch and installed the pipe. When they refilled the ditch they used what they called 3-0 fill, which was crap with rocks up to 3” big in it. I asked them what they did with the good dirt and got blank stares.
I figured there must be money in the stuff so they took it.
However, later….
My buddy had a field that was pretty much a swamp. Down the road from us a new restaurant was being built. We stopped and asked that contractor what he was going to do with the dirt he was digging up. He asked us where we were and we told him we were less than a mile down the road.
He was all over that! Before we knew it we had 20 – 20 ton trucks of dirt delivered no charge. Apparently we were saving him big bucks by his not having to haul it further. It was decent stuff to. (as far as dirt goes)
So I’m thinking it’s not so much that a contractor will take dirt to make money on it, but more the logistics of moving the stuff around and doing whatever the cheapest.

In my subdivision, in Ann Arbor, MI, they took the top soil. Our front lawns are pretty much what was dug up from the basements. My house in particular has clay soil. Others have a lot of gravel (up to about 1 inch diamter), so I’m one of the lucky ones. Walking over in the final phase, where they’ve graded, there are tiny (10 foot diameter) hills where, for whatever reason, they’ve left the original ground undisturbed. There’s about two feet thick of nice soil. The parts they’ve scraped, even the weeds can hardly grow in.