`Green' votes gather praise

Environmentalists and business leaders back building rules

August 01, 2007|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

Business leaders and environmentalists are praising the unanimous approval by Howard County Council this week of the Ulman administration's "green" buildings legislation.

"Howard County is going to be a leader in the nation" as a result, said David Pratt, an environmental consultant and president of the Baltimore regional chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. "I think we're going to have a concentration of high-quality buildings.

Heidi Gaasch, Howard County Chamber of Commerce government affairs director, said, "We're pleased with the outcome." The collaborative work of many people is "something to be proud of," she said.

Peter Z. Garver, vice president of development services for Corporate Office Properties Trust, the county's biggest office developer, also praised the package, as did Tom Ballentine, director of government affairs for the Homebuilders Association of Maryland.

"We think it shows real leadership by the administration. Certainly, the more you do to encourage people, the more you do to change the market," Garver said.

"I think if you look around at other places in the country, it's a significant set of policies," Ballentine said.

Environmentalists agreed.

"I'd call it a good step forward. We're on track to do a lot more," said Lee Walker Oxenham, the Sierra Club's representative on County Executive Ken Ulman's Commission on the Environment and Sustainability.

Oxenham said she hopes more will be done to get proposed buildings of less than 50,000 square feet - the minimum threshold in the new law - to also meet environmental standards set by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Ulman said he shares that goal.

County Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty, a west Columbia Democrat, expressed a similar hope after Monday's voting session, saying more could be done to retrofit existing and renovated buildings to higher environmental standards.

The measures offer up to 75 percent in property tax credits for five years as an incentive for commercial building developers. They also set aside 100 housing allocations annually for environmentally friendly green residential projects anywhere in the county. Howard County regulates growth by limiting residential building permits by geographic area, and the council agreed to take 25 allocations from four different areas to come up with the 100 units.

In addition, any proposed commercial building of 50,000 square feet or more would be required to apply for LEED certification and go through a lengthy LEED evaluation process. Any developer who refuses would face fines. The bills take effect July 1 next year.

The council postponed until the fall consideration of a proposed list of green features for residential communities.

At its legislative session Monday, the council adopted a long list of amendments, including two prompted by business leaders' complaints.

One eliminated the need for commercial developers' buildings to win LEED certification. Ulman argues that requiring them to apply and go through the extensive evaluation process will achieve the same thing. The second amendment eliminated the need for a surety bond. Since the buildings no longer must be certified, there is no need for the bond, which business leaders had said was an onerous requirement.

"We thought we listened to the concerns of business and the community," Ulman said after the vote. "At the end of the day, we compromised."

Instead of refusing to yield, Ulman and all five council members worked last week to craft legislation they could all support.

Ulman maintained that, while he was intent on getting bills passed before the council's August break and equally adamant that the new laws take effect next summer, the compromises do not weaken the legislation's intent.

"It's incredibly unlikely that someone will go through the process and not be certified," he said, vowing to monitor the program and stiffen enforcement, if needed. "Because of this vote today, we will start to see neighborhoods built that are much more environmentally friendly," Ulman said Monday.

Pratt agreed, adding that any developer who went through the process would want the building to qualify, for competitive purposes, if no other.

"It would be like somebody decided they were going to run a marathon and then stopped after 24 miles," he said. "I can't imagine a developer being happy with being identified with something that didn't meet basic requirements." LEED certification comes at basic, silver, gold and platinum levels, depending on the environmental features that are included.

Still, Republican Councilman Greg Fox said he and the other council members deserve the credit for forcing Ulman to compromise.

"It was gutted to the point where it was reasonable," Fox said after the council's legislative session.

Other council members and Ulman and Pratt disputed that view.

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