Developer's hopes for St. Charles hinge on going green

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 2009

First came the "green" jobs, green buildings and green energy.

Now Southern Maryland will get a green city, where residents will live in energy-saving homes, shop in energy-saving stores and walk under energy-saving streetlights as a new plant next door generates carbon-friendly solar power.

This is the vision to revitalize St. Charles, a planned community of 12,000 homes and 5 million square feet of offices, stores and industrial parks in Waldorf now showing its age.

American Community Properties Trust, a developer, will announce plans Monday to double the community's size while reducing its carbon footprint through green design and, officials hope, technology that could create thousands of green jobs.

"What we're trying to do is reinvent the balance of the community," said Steve Griessel, the company's chief executive. "When the green thing first started, people said, 'We're going to put green icing on the cake.' We want to build the thing from the ground up as a green cake."

The first homes in St. Charles rose 40 years ago. It was to be the next Columbia, a planned community offering neighborhood schools, playgrounds, walking paths, lakes and a shopping center. Griessel said he hopes the new niche will revive a development that, despite Charles County's rapid growth, has become stagnant.

American Community Properties, Southern Maryland's biggest developer, has struggled with flat housing prices and losses that led to a corporate restructuring last year, and Griessel said he expects home prices in St. Charles -- now from $235,000 to $400,000 -- to remain depressed. By going green on such a large scale, "we want to put ourselves on the map," he said.

The question is whether a smaller carbon footprint will sell in a middle-class bedroom suburb 22 miles from Washington.

"This is not a handful of people in Takoma Park," said Malcolm D. Woolf, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley's top energy adviser, referring to the Montgomery County neighborhood known for its progressive views. "It's a market test of the economic power of sustainability in a conservative part of Maryland, a mainstream community."

The state is offering no financial support to the developer, although O'Malley (D), who has made conservation a centerpiece of his energy policy, is scheduled to speak at the announcement Monday.

The green city would dovetail with another developer's plans to build a 10-megawatt solar facility in St. Charles. The $35 million plant on 75 acres would be built by Competitive Power Ventures, a Silver Spring company that also has proposed a natural gas plant on a neighboring site in St. Charles's industrial area. The company is trying to secure financing for both projects.

If all three projects come to fruition, the future for those living in St. Charles would look like this: low-flush, low-flow toilets and showers; better-than-normal insulation; recycled carpets; and government-certified, Energy Star-rated appliances. Energy-saving windows would also be in every home, alongside "smart" thermostats that allow the utility company to lower the air conditioning by a few degrees when energy demand is peaking and prices are highest, Griessel said.

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