City undergoing greening pains in permit process
When it comes to green building designs and low impact developments (LID), Bellingham is better than most other cities its size.
But when you’re situated next to some of the most environmentally progressive cities in America, such as Seattle and Portland, keeping pace can be challenging — especially when the trend’s unspoken perception can be that if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the pollution.
Bellingham has permitted more than 37 green building projects over the past few years. While this may seem like a healthy amount, it must be taken in the context of the overall number of permits issued, however: Bellingham issued a total of 1,482 permits for 2006 alone. Developers, engineers and public officials see demand for green building increasing despite this disparity, yet learning how to recognize and facilitate green building projects is a concern for everyone involved.
Bellingham’s residents and builders are beginning to initiate more and more green projects themselves. As a land surveyor and civil designer for eight years in California, Chris Coppens said his three-lot development on Racine Street was an opportunity to take what he knows about design and construction and do something good for the environment. And Bellingham is better off for his efforts, as it received the first rain garden to be in the public right of way.
Rain gardens are a water filtration technique using plants and soils to decompose heavy metals and other pollutants from stormwater runoff before the water is released into the watershed.
Coppens said he’s proud of the rain garden, but the permit process for the entire project took three years from pencil to planting, and other ideas he considered to be environmentally friendly were turned down.
For example, he wanted to build a divided road with a swale down its middle to filter run-off from the road or pave the entire road with pervious concrete, a special pavement with unique filtering properties. He said the city told him both were out of the question. The city only allows pervious concrete shoulders for public streets, but he said this didn’t pencil out because he would still have to build some kind of water catchment device to get LID credit and meet the city’s stormwater requirements, something he hoped the pervious concrete would mediate.
Bellingham’s LID category is a subset of stormwater mitigation strategy offering developers credits that allow them to build more on a given lot or save money on the project.
Nick Hartrich and Derek Long from Sustainable Connections said there’s no regulatory basis for the city to say whether a project is green or not. They said a recent McGraw-Hill survey states that 60 percent of architects, engineers and construction companies are specifying and installing green building products, so there is growing pressure on municipalities everywhere to implement regulatory framework.
“Everyone is speaking toward the same issues but they have a difficult time communicating with each other,” Hartrich said.
‘They haven’t approved us, but they haven’t said no’
Problems with Bellingham’s permit process have been well documented by the local media, and the trend toward innovative green building and LID techniques may only exacerbate those problems.
Although building codes are confusing, city planners’ and developers’ lack of experience with permitting green building and LID also makes the process difficult, said Chris Webb. As the engineer who designed the rain garden on Racine Street, Webb has 15 years of engineering experience and spent the last 12 years doing LID projects in Bellingham.
“There are instances where they haven’t approved us but they haven’t said no. Things like rain gardens, pervious pavement, rain water catchments and green roofs are just new,” Webb said. “The benefits are not easy to quantify, but as we document what’s happening at places that are already built, it’s going to be easier for regulators to see these things work and give credits for LID.”
Although people at Public Works know the systems work — the city has a rain garden in the city hall parking lot — he said the city is reluctant to allow certain techniques in the public right of way because they will require new operations and maintenance roles for city workers and the city will have to make a transition. So for the city to agree to take control of maintaining the Racine Street rain garden, for example, is a positive step forward, Webb said.
Three things need to happen before green building and LID become widespread, Webb said: The operation staff need to get trained for these new techniques so the city feels comfortable maintaining the systems; standards for LID need to be added to the city codes that define development standards so these ideas are no longer new or controversial and anyone could see what needs to be done; and engineers and developers need to have a green team to work with. If these systems were in place, the city would go a long way toward resolving any problems.
“Bellingham is doing better than other cities I’ve worked with,” Webb said. “Are they approving every single thing [engineers] throw at them? No. But that’s not their job. They’re guardians of the public interest and they don’t tend to grab new things and take them on.”
Jason K. Porter, stormwater utility engineer for Public Works, agrees the science needs to catch up with some green technologies before the city will legalize them, but how Public Works reviews LID projects is not the problem. Permitting LID projects such as pervious pavement is site specific and requires more than simply following the guidelines in the LID manual. He understands why developers expect a streamlined process where one model has universal application, but that just isn’t the case.
“Putting pervious pavement over hard-pan clay doesn’t make it a low impact development,” Porter said.
Often LID projects are used to minimize costs for developers. Right now LID projects offer developers the only incentive Bellingham has for environmentally friendly construction. Porter said 65 percent to 80 percent of the projects he sees are applying for an LID credit, which potentially can cut their impact fees in half.
But many try to use LID in situations that aren’t applicable. Projects can meet the letter but not the intent of the LID manual, and that’s why Public Works tells developers to revise their plans if they want the credit, he said.
Porter admits this confusion could be attributed to the lack of information provided in the manual, because it’s not very clear or in-depth concerning LID accreditation. Porter said a big obstacle for applicants is the expertise required to implement these technologies.
Webb’s advice in the meantime is to go early and go often. He advises applicants to approach the city in an information-gathering mode, engage them as a partner and see what they can and can’t do. But since each applicant possesses differing degrees of expertise, he said Bellingham needs a funded green team.
Bellingham considers its options
Other cities are creating the regulatory framework for green building by adopting incentive-based programs — Portland is even considering a fine-based approach. Although Bellingham has a few pilot programs for green building, it remains unclear what the city is going to do.
The city is looking to overhaul the entire permit process some time during the next two years by consolidating steps so everything happens at the same time. And last January, Bellingham’s planning division recruited Darby Galligan, Steve Sundin and two other members from its staff for a green team to brainstorm ways to reduce overlap between departments, develop incentives builders can use and educate city employees and the public about green building practices.
“Our task right now is to find out what people are willing to do,” Sundin said.
Galligan and Sundin said it’s too early to submit any proposals to the City Council, but their focus will be on removing obstacles rather than putting standardized green designs into the code. At this stage, the city will continue to rely on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) model developed by the U.S. Green Building Council because they have an established criteria and the city can safely assume if someone is registered with the LEED program then certain green requirements are being satisfied. But Galligan said the question then is how can the city can allow LEED equivalent standards without having its own monitoring system.
“The key is the coordination, the proper installation and the testing to make sure it’s all getting done,” Galligan said. “Who’s the third party that’s going to verify that it’s all getting done? We don’t have the resources to start up a new green building or LID certification office.”
Sundin and Galligan said the green team shares Hartrich’s and Long’s goal from Sustainable Connections to communicate with different people in the industry such as professionals, local government and educators in order to move green building forward. Without a policy from Bellingham that helps people see what sustainable design is and how it works, it will be hard to change.