Howard Chief Pushes Green Development

By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Howard Executive Ken Ulman wants to see fewer McMansions sprouting on manicured lawns in his county and instead envisions a suburbia with more wetlands, office buildings incorporating recycled materials and less pavement.

To help accomplish that, he said yesterday that he is preparing legislation to prod commercial and residential builders to construct sustainable, environmentally sensitive developments.

"It's something I wanted to do from the first day I was elected," said Ulman, 32, the youngest leader of a major jurisdiction in the Washington region.

Ulman, a lawyer who was elected executive last year after one four-year term on the County Council, has quickly sought to establish an assertive administration.

He made his announcement without copies of the plan available for the public. The County Council is expected to receive the proposals next week, and some said they are concerned about the potential effect on business.

Howard would join jurisdictions such as Baltimore and Montgomery counties and the District in requiring that large new buildings meet stricter energy and design standards, but Ulman's proposal appears to go further because it tries to extend the standards to home construction.

"I think folks want to do more," Ulman (D) said. "We've got to start moving in a more environmentally friendly direction."

Under Ulman's proposal, public buildings of 10,000 square feet or more and private buildings of 20,000 square feet or more would have to meet industry-accepted certification standards for energy efficiency and environmental design. Howard would require compliance after July 1, 2008.

As an incentive, Howard would offer property tax credits that would escalate from 25 to 75 percent for increasing levels of energy conservation and sustainable design. County finance officials estimate that the property tax credits, which would probably be offered for only a few years, could reduce government revenue by $1 million to nearly $4 million a year.

Ulman also wants to encourage home builders to construct subdivisions with narrower streets to create less pavement, cisterns for houses to recycle rainwater and reforested open space. As an incentive, Ulman has proposed speeding the approval process for up to 100 homes annually that meet the new environmental standards. The net effect would be fewer McMansions.

Home builders have not widely embraced the latest energy-saving and environmental design features, according to industry experts.

"There's a clamoring of demand from consumers, but [home builders] are much more decentralized and fragmented than the commercial marketplace," said David Michaelson, an Arlington County construction contractor and a regional representative for the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit coalition of building industry leaders. The Green Building Council, which has developed a widely recognized rating system for certifying buildings, is working on how to rate neighborhoods for conservation design. Howard officials have said they would create their own environmental standards for home builders to meet.

Council members were cautious and emphasized that they need to scrutinize the details.

"I'd like to see a little more about the fiscal impact, how it works as a package," said County Council Chairman Calvin Ball (D-East Columbia). "I'm willing to consider what I've heard about."

Greg Fox (R-Western Howard), whose district would face a reduction in yearly housing allocations under Ulman's plan, said he might accept a slower rate of growth. He was less comfortable about requiring compliance with energy and conservation standards.

"I do have concerns about this type of mandate being placed on the business community," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company