12.15.09
Bradford McKee | Opinions

Brass Knuckles and Better Ideas

Birch stand on the road from Park City to Guardsman Park, Utah, 2007. Photo: Martin Ralya

The National Association of Home Builders is upset about some new rules just put out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Well, duh. The rules aim to fix the huge amounts of dirt and pollution that run off construction sites and into watersheds every day those folks go to work, by ordering them to stabilize soils where they claw into the earth. During the recent housing bonanza, as it’s been forever, home builders and other construction contractors pretty much ran roughshod over the land while they built up all these new houses in tree-free subdivisions, which, as everyone knows, have been causing disasters of a whole different sort — smog, suburban monoculture, the mortgage meltdown.

To judge by the home builders’ official response to the new rules, you can practically see the complexions of its laissez-faire lobbyists in Washington turning more roseate than usual. Forcing builders to tread more delicately on the land will be awfully hard on smaller properties (the rules eventually will cover only sites of 10 or more acres). And what would be among the first casualties? We’ll soon find the rules “severely hampering ‘smart growth’ projects and transit-friendly building,” the association warns passive-aggressively.

So there goes that tiny fraction of mass-production home building. The bigger problem is the rules will take time, money and ingenuity to figure out — home builders can probably find all three if they’re forced to try. Compliance will cost companies nearly $1 billion a year once they’re fully phased in, and the price of some houses could push up by about 1 percent, according to the EPA’s analysis.

But cheap is relative — some costs are less easily calculated. Soil runoff from construction sites is spoiling about 1 million acres of lakes and reservoirs and 26,000 miles of rivers (although the EPA says those are probably lowball figures). It turns these waters turbid and chokes the life out of them. The new rules are expected to cut erosion into waterways by about 4 billion pounds a year, though the proposed rule originally stated a goal of 27 billion pounds. The EPA couldn’t provide a clear figure of the total annual runoff, but at a recent hearing in the House of Representatives, the agency’s administrator, Lisa Jackson, cited pollution from construction sites as being among the “biggest threats” to the nation’s water quality.

The EPA has been talking tough lately about water pollution, which is a welcome change, because construction runoff, along with the vast amounts of stormwater sheeting off so many asphalt parking lots in cities and suburbs, is causing massive wear on stream beds and disrupting the natural flow of groundwater. But you might never have known, to hear Jackson speak, that the EPA had to be sued by the Natural Resources Defense Council into writing the construction site rules as part of its duty under the Clean Water Act, a law that the Bush administration did not hold dear.

Hooray for the overdue chastening of the heedless building industry! But there’s a problem with regulations that powerful interest groups find hostile: They can always be undone later by an administration more sympathetic to their interests, and they often are. There have been so many whiplashing changes to rules covering the godawful practice of mountaintop-mining over the years that I’ve lost track, and to be honest, I can’t recall off the top whether I could legally ride a snowmobile through Yellowstone tomorrow or not, but I’m pretty sure that I could bring a gun. That’s why dense and contentious environmental regulations, when they are effective, count only as qualified victories for anybody.

In the long view, there may be another way to attack the problem, though it’s hardly a full-on solution. Just before the construction-site rules came out in November, a new voluntary program emerged to promote more sensitive treatment of land and natural resources wherever development takes place. It’s called the Sustainable Sites Initiative, and it was assembled over the past five years by the American Society of Landscape Architects and the United States Botanic Garden, both in Washington, D.C., and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin. It involved a long and eclectic list of expert advisors.

It looks every bit like a solid, comprehensive program to follow. Against a wide-ranging slate of criteria, it sanctions landscape designs of all sizes by awarding credits for various levels of certification. It starts with site selection — giving credit for limiting development on good farmland, protecting floodplains and wetlands and developing old industrial sites or in areas already built up. It addresses water in practically every form, suggesting cuts in irrigation with potable water and the saving and guarding of aquatic environments and urging collection of rainwater. It covers all aspects of site design such as soil and plants (native plants are best), construction materials and the ways people will engage the project — it’s best if people can get to a site by walking rather than driving. It even covers light pollution. And, much like the new EPA construction-site rules, it pushes developers to treat the ground itself with respect by keeping the soils as close as possible to where they found them.

The Sustainable Sites program aims to become, to landscape design, the powerful equivalent of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards written by the U.S. Green Building Council for commercial buildings and, more recently, for houses and even neighborhoods. You have to remember that when the LEED program started in the early 1990s, it sounded vaguely cultish and quixotic. I figured it would dwindle to nothing in due time — a couple of years — like so many initiatives that come to clog a reporter’s inbox. But as everyone in the design world knows by now, LEED steadily became the gold standard for sustainable architecture.

The LEED system is not perfect — common complaints are that LEED certification can cost clients a ton of money to plan, document and defend, and in some cases, a project can get more credits by piling on more products such as bamboo flooring where a concrete floor would do the trick. But it has without question helped marry the idea of sustainability to the wisdom of preservation and reuse of buildings. And I personally would never have thought I’d see some players on the rump end of the development business, for whom virtue is never as important as money, practically die for bragging rights to a LEED gold or silver rating on their building. But here we are.

Campaigns like Sustainable Sites and LEED do not have the force of law, which is all that’s left when people refuse to put common interests before their own. But they do have the magic of making otherwise oblivious developers think that sustainability is their own swell idea. If Sustainable Sites and LEED together can help the shapers of buildings, campuses, roadsides, parking lots and neighborhoods become a lot more attuned to ecological forms and rhythms and act less wastefully, it will be very good for the world. If that turns out to be completely delusional, we can only hope to keep the law handy as a semi-reliable form of insurance.





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