Business leaders object to some aspects of Howard County Executive Ken Ulman's environmental "green" building bills, which could mean a rougher County Council ride than the smoothly settled compromise of a thorny Elkridge housing dispute.
The Howard County Chamber of Commerce is generally supporting Ulman's package of legislation, but the chamber wants amendments that would delay the effective date one year, until July 2009, exempt smaller commercial buildings and remove a requirement that builders be bonded to guarantee that they meet the standards.
The bills are the subject of a County Council public hearing at 7:30 p.m. Monday.
"We'd like the process to be slowed down. We're concerned about the number of county employees who don't have expertise in green design," said Heidi Gaasch, the chamber's government and community affairs director.
Ulman said he is not likely to change the effective date of his bills, but will talk about the other items on the chamber's agenda.
"We're open to discussion on the size of the building. We'd like to see some numbers, cost-wise," the executive said. The surety bond is also open for discussion, he said. It was intended to protect the county during the sometimes yearlong process of certifying a building as green.
"How do we have some guarantee that they will get the certification? We are willing to look at a phased or graduated system," he said.
Ulman said he is "very confident" that county employees will be ready to administer the program. He said department heads are working on it, and the budget has money for consultants, if needed.
The executive's three bills use the carrot-and-stick approach to promote environmentally friendly design of public and private buildings.
One would offer property tax credits of up to 75 percent for five years for firms that build to "silver," "gold" or "platinum" standards certified by Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. The same measure would require that any county building larger than 10,000 square feet and any private commercial building larger than 20,000 square feet meet minimal LEED standards, based on site plans submitted after July 1, 2008.
A second bill would require any new county buildings constructed with at least 30 percent public funds to meet silver LEED standards, and a third measure would offer developers a chance for faster residential home approvals if they use environmentally progressive techniques in new neighborhoods.
But the chamber is worried about the expense of LEED certification of smaller commercial buildings and a provision that would require a surety bond to guarantee compliance.
"Green building standards can be costly," a chamber position paper stated, "and the business community has long maintained its opposition to government mandates in cases where incentives produce better compliance and long-term results."
In place of the surety bond, the chamber prefers fines or other measures affecting only those who do not comply. Because LEED certification is based on a point system assigned to various environmental techniques, the chamber argues that a developer who misses certification by a few points should not be grouped with those who miss by wide margins.
Including smaller buildings in the law also would put an unfair financial burden on developers, argued Cole Schnorf, a partner at Manekin, one of the county's largest builders and managers of office buildings. He and the chamber favor requiring LEED standards on private buildings of at least 50,000 square feet, instead of the 20,000 square feet in Ulman's bill.
"There are fixed costs of getting certification," he said, noting that it has cost Manekin about $400,000 to seek silver LEED certification for its 50,000-square-foot headquarters building in Columbia. Building a 25,000-square-foot building would not halve the cost of certification, however, placing a larger relative burden on developers of smaller buildings.
Many smaller buildings are built without guaranteed tenants, making them speculative, and more affected by higher construction costs, he said.
The chamber has at least one ally on the County Council, Greg Fox, the five-member body's only Republican. "I'm not comfortable mandating, regardless," he said. Fox suggested faster processing for developers using green standards instead of requiring that the standards be used.
He is worried, he said, that parts of Ulman's bills, combined with council Chairman Calvin Ball's living-wage bill would be perceived as "really anti-business pieces of legislation. It's not the right signal to send to the business community."
Ball's bill, co-sponsored by North Laurel-Savage Democrat Jen Terrasa, would require contractors doing at least $100,000 worth of work for the county with at least five employees to pay their workers at least $12.41 an hour.
Ball and Terrasa said the measure is a simple attempt to ensure that people can earn enough to sustain themselves, particularly in a high-cost place like Howard County. Ball said the bill would cost under $132,000 annually through fiscal year 2012. No current county employees make less than $12.41 an hour, he added.
At the July 2 legislative session, the council solved a touchy, complicated housing issue in Elkridge with a compromise.
Members voted 4-1, with west Columbia Democrat Mary Kay Sigaty opposed, to approve a bill to limit two-family dwellings as a conditional use in some residential zones. The bill would increase the minimum lot size for such units 33 percent, from the current 12,000 square feet to 16,000 square feet.
Sponsor Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who represents Elkridge, said the limits would prevent any undue increase in density "but leave the way open for affordable housing."