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Going Green

Local lawmakers embrace green building standards

Local lawmakers – whether in the congested suburbs of major urban centers or in smaller communities around the country – have embraced green building standards.

Those standards are exemplified, if not defined outright, by the LEED criteria adopted by the private U.S. Green Building Council. “LEED” stands for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.”

Local officials are “absolutely swayed” by the badge of environmental sensitivity that comes with LEED certification, according to one prominent urban planning expert. “It’s something a developer knows will cause a review board to approve a project,” said Jeff Speck, former director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Many urban governments are going beyond simply smiling on green building projects when they come forward, Speck said. “Some cities are requiring all new construction of a certain size to be LEED certified,” he noted.

Northern Virginia, adjacent to Washington, D.C., is no exception to the movement. In fact, some leaders in the region want to be right at the LEED forefront. “Not only are they enamored of it, they are trying to find ways to require it,” said Sean Hawley.

Hawley, a Northern Virginia construction law attorney, recently organized a Virginia seminar on local government efforts to require green development and construction.

Arlington County is deliberately pushing the limits of state law to insist on green standards for development. A decade ago, Arlington pioneered green building standards through its planning and zoning approval process.

Now, other local governments throughout the Washington area are comparing notes and trying new regulatory schemes to encourage sustainable development.

Hawley sees the trend as a win-win for everyone: counties, designers, owners, developers, architects and engineers.

In the absence of federal green building standards, the LEED program emerged as the de facto national standard for local rules on sustainable design.

LEED’s widespread acceptance presents one concern, according to Speck: Rigidity that could be imposed by universal adoption of the LEED standards. When nearly every locality uses the same list of environmental criteria, he explained, no one is encouraged to explore new ideas for sustainable design.

“If LEED becomes a normal requirement in most cities in the country, we have a problem because we have fewer places where we can be truly innovative. Truly innovative projects will use technologies that are not rewarded by any incentive program,” he said.

Speck says localities have not reached that point yet. “Since we’re so early on the curve, I feel very comfortable advocating for LEED,” Speck commented. “We’re not at risk yet of stifling innovation.”

While LEED certification may open doors for developers seeking official approval, Speck says the green trend is not fueling its own development boom. “I do not think it’s accurate that any part of the country is seeing a building boom because of LEED,” he said.

“What you are seeing,” he said, “is that companies that provide green building materials and green expertise are flourishing.”

LEED may be used by some developers as a talisman to ward off opposition, but that tactic apparently does not work in every case.

Take the case of St. Michael’s Parish in Exeter, N.H.

When a mainstream religious order wants to build a church and parish center, and promises LEED certification, it would seem that the skids are greased for easy passage through the local approval process. Not so in Exeter, however.

“We all applauded the LEED approach, but they just picked the wrong site to do it,” said Virginia Raub. Raub is a member of the town’s Conservation Commission, charged with oversight of environmental issues.

Her main problem with the St. Michael’s Parish project is that it is located in a wetlands area, and green building techniques do nothing to minimize the impact of the project’s location. “LEED has nothing to do with wetlands,” she said. “They’re using it as a carrot, tossing it out.”

Raub also questions what she regards as unproven technology in the use of porous pavement.

Exeter’s Conservation Commission unanimously turned thumbs down on the proposal to dredge and fill 23,000 square feet of wetlands for the parish project. The approval process continues, however, since the commission’s vote is advisory only.

LEED may lose what appears to be its blind eye to questions about building sites. Speck and other development experts hail a new development in the LEED program that expands the focus to include a building’s location and neighborhood resources. Known as LEED Neighborhood Development, or LEED-ND, the new criteria address where a LEED project is located and how it is accessed.

“Smart growth advocates have criticized LEED for not placing as much importance on location as design,” Speck said.

One of those smart growth advocates is Cheryl Cort with the Coalition for Smarter Growth in the Washington metropolitan area. “The challenge is that we need to guide growth so that it is giving people environmentally friendly transportation choices,” she said. The pilot criteria being developed for LEED-ND will address that concern, she said.

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