Pohanka struggling to meet Fairfax’s stringent green-building rules

When Pohanka Automotive Group decided to build a new car dealership in Chantilly, the company agreed to dozens of environmentally friendly features that would make its building one of the greenest around.

The list included clean, energy-saving touches such as a reflective roof, bike racks, a shower for cyclists, motion-sensor faucets, curbs on light pollution, using recycled water in its car wash, and a service shop open seven days a week to cut peak-hour traffic. To top it off, the company promised to build a 117-foot-tall wind turbine to generate electricity.

Not good enough, Fairfax County planners said. The Department of Planning and Zoning recommended denial of the land-use application because Pohanka refused to submit to a national process for certifying green buildings.

The Planning Commission endorsed Pohanka’s plans anyway, and county staff eventually agreed to support the application after Pohanka agreed to achieve verifiable energy savings. Both the staff and the Planning Commission play advisory roles, but their opinions have significant influence with the Board of Supervisors, which will consider Pohanka’s application on March 20.

To some public officials, Pohanka’s land-use case demonstrates that Virginia’s most populous jurisdiction is serious about promoting green buildings.

More than 11,600 commercial projects have been certified as green by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, with nearly 2 million square feet of new construction obtaining LEED certification every day, said Ashley Katz, a council spokeswoman.

But others say the car dealership’s behind-the-scenes struggle suggests that the county’s environmental regulatory apparatus has become too onerous.

“On Pohanka, when I looked at it, I just said this has gone too far,” said Supervisor Pat S. Herrity (R-Springfield). “It doesn’t seem realistic to me that anybody would put those kind of handcuffs on their business unless they were trying to please staff.”

Pohanka, based in Prince George’s County, submitted the Chantilly rezoning application last year to redevelop about 10 acres along Stonecroft Boulevard near Route 50 in the Dulles Suburban Center area. The plans called for two interconnected buildings that would stand one or two stories high and occupy about 75,000 square feet, which is about the size of a soccer field.

Geoffrey P. Pohanka, the group’s vice president, said the firm always wanted to build a green building, if only to trim its energy bills.

Hence the windmill, which was an idea he picked up from a dealership out West. In 20 meetings or so with county staff, the company tried to make the case that its dealership would be greener than green, but that obtaining LEED approval was not necessarily the best way to go prove it.

“We were not saying we’re opposed to LEED. We were trying to show them it wasn’t giving them what they thought it would,” Pohanka said. He said many energy-saving features the dealership proposed — such as service bay doors that open and close in fewer than 5 seconds — had little bearing on LEED’s scoring system, while those that did, such as relocating near a Metro stop, were not practical.

Barbara C. Berlin, director of the county’s zoning evaluation division, said planners were carrying out policy dictated by the Board of Supervisors that urges businesses to construct environmentally sound buildings in areas targeted for heavy growth. The policy also specifies that businesses must obtain LEED certification or its equivalent. Alternatives could include certifying programs such as Green Globes or Energy Star.

Although Pohanka’s application included 35 environmental conditions, its refusal to obtain third-party certification meant that the county would have no way of knowing whether the measures would achieve their desired aim of cutting energy use or even whether the dealership would carry them out, county officials said.

Berlin said the county was willing to be flexible with Pohanka, especially because many features of a car dealership pose challenges. Planners agreed to recommend approval of Pohanka’s rezoning application only after the dealership agreed to achieve a verifiable 15 percent reduction in energy use compared with other Fairfax dealerships.

But critics, knowing Fairfax’s pride in being the most business-friendly of the region’s suburban counties, worry that such policies could harm its reputation as a place that prefers creating more jobs than red tape.

“I think to some extent we are clearly overregulating,” said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully), whose district includes Chantilly. Frey said the environmentally friendly features required for LEED certification, along with the fees to apply for the designation, can add $200,000 to construction costs.

“LEED is expensive and a lot of paperwork for a plaque you can hang on the wall,” Frey said. He said many businesses are adopting sustainable features to save on energy bills and lure environmentally savvy customers.

Stuart Mendelsohn, who has served as Dranesville District supervisor and Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce chairman, said the county’s push for green building is aggravating to businesses that think the planning process requires them to spend too much to address environmental and affordable-housing goals, often at the expense of transportation improvements.

“There’s a bottom line to how much a developer can provide before the project is no longer viable,” Mendelsohn said.

The U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit, charges certification fees based on square footage. For Pohanka, the fee would be nearly $10,000. But the council said green buildings quickly pay for themselves, and then some.

“We generally say that you can build a green building for not a penny more than a conventional building,” council spokeswoman Ashley Katz said.

A green building costs 2 to 5 percent more than a conventional building, but the extra cost can be recovered through energy savings and reduced maintenance within two years, Katz said, citing studies.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) said the county relies on third-party certification because the certifying organizations know the most up-to-date practices, and businesses have flexibility in choosing which certification to seek.

Besides needing to save on energy costs, many view LEED certification as a green badge of honor that works as a marketing tool.

“I’ve attended many, many ribbon cuttings, and frankly the companies that are opening the doors are extremely proud of the environmental improvements they’re making,” Bulova said.

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