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Green Grumblings

A new green building proposal in Washington, D.C., has many developers on edge. While green ordinances are nothing new, D.C.'s Bill 16-515, if enacted, would extend beyond government buildings to mandate compliance in the private sector.

“Bill 16-515 reaches well beyond the practice of other green jurisdictions,” said developer Robert Braunohler at a Feb. 10 hearing on the measure. Braunohler, a regional vice president at Louis Dreyfus Property Group, opposes establishing a compliance officer for pre-permitting plan reviews and inspections, which he said carries “threats of stop-work orders and certificates of occupancy denials.”

A working group formed by the Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs is currently fine-tuning the bill's requirements, enforcement language and incentives program. The measure is expected to come up for further consideration later this year.

Under the proposal, any construction or renovation involving 20,000 sq. ft. or more must meet green building energy-efficiency standards, posing added costs for developers and landlords alike.

Dozens of speakers praised the spirit of the ordinance, drafted by Councilmember Sharon Ambrose, but most called for refinement to avoid stifling renovations and development.

At least 43 cities and 14 states encourage energy efficiency and the use of environmentally friendly materials and construction methods, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. Nearly all of those policies are limited to government-owned buildings, however, or offer incentives to encourage commercial developers to meet standards for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) ratings on new properties.

What worries landlords and developers about D.C.'s Green Building Act is that the plan extends green building requirements to non-government projects. As currently proposed, even refinishing the interior of a 20,000 sq. ft. space in an aging office building would require compliance with the latest green building standards, potentially involving the replacement of ventilation and hot water systems or other high-dollar items.

“When you're dealing with a renovation, or even the development of an interior space, those standards make no sense,” says David Briggs, an attorney in the land-use and government practice group of Holland & Knight in Washington. Briggs serves on a working group that is attempting to convince District leaders to adjust the bill's provisions.

Another alarming feature of the bill, say some developers, is that it would use the District's own inspectors to ensure compliance with the new rules, rather than deferring to the existing LEED system.

While Washington, D.C. is trying to push the envelope, other cities have already adopted more aggressive green building codes. Late last year, the city council in Pasadena, Calif., adopted an ordinance requiring all new commercial and residential construction to meet at least the minimum LEED level of certification. The legislation is driven in part by environmentalism, but many cities also see green building as a way to control energy usage on power grids that struggle to keep up with increased demand brought on by new construction.

“Buildings consume 40% of the available energy in the United States,” says Rick Fedrizzi, president, CEO and founding chair of the U.S. Green Building Council. “We have the power, and the responsibility, to reduce our energy consumption through high-performance green building.”

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