Baltimore's green building law still in limbo

Sweeping environmental standards await new mayor

February 03, 2010|By Tim Wheeler | Baltimore Sun reporter

Baltimore's green building law, considered one of the most sweeping in the nation, lingers in a legal limbo of sorts more than seven months after it supposedly took effect.

The city has yet to publish regulations to carry out the law, which requires most private as well as public buildings to be energy-efficient and environmentally friendly in their design and construction.

Though promised by the end of 2009, the rules and a set of home-grown green building standards are still being tinkered with by city officials. Officials are trying to address some concerns voiced by developers, who remain wary of the complexity, tough standards and potential costs of a law that has been phased in, with private buildings and redevelopments to be covered beginning last July.

Michael Braverman, deputy city housing commissioner, said he's consulting with the city's legal staff on a few remaining outstanding issues in the 400 pages of rules and standards, but he hopes to have them settled within a few weeks.

"We're trying get some resolution, to get as much agreement as we can with those who have specific complaints about the regulations," he said.

Departing Mayor Sheila Dixon, who has promoted sustainability during her three-year tenure, had reportedly been set to announce the rules late last month. But now they will be left for her successor, Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, to put in place. Some see the issue as a test of whether the new mayor will continue Dixon's "cleaner, greener" policies aimed at enhancing city residents' quality of life while promoting green-oriented businesses and jobs.

Ryan O'Doherty, spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said she has heard concerns from the business community about the city's green building requirements. But she hasn't gotten involved with the matter yet and is focusing on the city's serious budget problems, he said.

"My understanding is that Housing is working on the regulations," he said. "And I'm sure when they're complete, the department would give her a full briefing."

Adopted in 2007, the law requires commercial and multifamily buildings as small as 10,000 square feet to be built to meet a "silver" rating under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, or some equivalent set of requirements set by the city. LEED standards measure energy savings, water efficiency, carbon emissions, indoor environmental quality and use of resources, among other things.

The city paid more than $400,000 to a local green design firm, TerraLogos: eco architecture, to create alternative "green star" building standards. Architect Kim Schaefer said those standards are more flexible and Baltimore-centric than the national guidelines - making it easier to take credit, for example, for siting buildings in an urban setting where public transit is generally available.

Stuart Kaplow, a lawyer who is chairman of the Baltimore regional chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, called the city's law "a game-changer," particularly with the local design standards.

The city's standards "will help Baltimore city become the greenest major city in America," he said. Kaplow and other advocates say green buildings have lower energy costs, and though they once routinely cost more, that is not always true now.

Some developers, however, say Baltimore's green building requirements are so tough and complicated that they'll drive business to the suburbs. Baltimore and Howard counties, among other localities, have similar requirements but they are not as strict - or come paired with tax breaks or other economic incentives, they point out.

While supportive of green building in general, Samuel Polakoff of Cormony Development said, "We don't want to create a situation where it's just easier and cheaper to go build in Harford County than to do business in the city."

Redeveloping older buildings poses special challenges, noted Josh Neiman, with Hybrid Development Group, because historical preservation requirements sometimes conflict with the energy-saving mandates of the green building law.

But the architect of the city's green building standards said they should ease many of the developers' concerns, and could be as much as 25 percent less expensive to meet than the national guidelines.

Until the local standards are in place, city officials say developers should build projects to the national council's LEED silver rating, though they don't have to go to the trouble and expense of seeking formal certification. Kaplow contends the city is on shaky legal ground by making that requirement without having regulations in place.

But Braverman, the deputy housing commissioner, said only five qualifying projects have been proposed since the law began covering private buildings last July. No developer has balked so far, he said.

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