Howard County Executive Ken Ulman is proposing a legislative package designed to move the county to the forefront of the environmental movement's push for "green" buildings.
Ulman announced yesterday that he will introduce a combination of property tax breaks, governmental reforms and incentives for private home builders designed to speed the county onto an environmentally friendly track. The incentives and new laws, he said, will help change a hidebound culture in which new homes are built in traditional ways, without thought to the environment.
For example, the traditional suburban cul-de-sac could be eliminated, using techniques that pave a smaller area.
Joshua Feldmark, whom Ulman appointed in February to head his Howard County Environment and Sustainability Commission, said that instead of covering a large rounded area of a cul-de-sac in hard paving, builders could us a "T" configuration and blacktop less area.
The three bills will be submitted for introduction before the County Council next month, with a vote to follow July 30. Montgomery County has enacted similar laws, but Ulman said Howard's might take effect first.
"It's a beautiful day for the environment today," Ulman said yesterday as he announced his initiative to 21 members of the commission at a news conference in the environmentally obsolete, 30-year-old George Howard Building in Ellicott City. Ulman appointed the commission in February, and the group's six committees are to report their recommendations by Aug. 31.
Ulman is offering incentives and new requirements in the three bills, he said.
The first would require any structure over 20,000 square feet built from a site plan submitted after July 1, 2008, to meet minimal environmental LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] standards, but then would offer commercial developers property tax credits up to 75 percent of their bill for five years if they construct buildings to higher than minimal standards. Beyond the minimal certification, there are silver, gold and platinum levels. Each building is evaluated on a point system for the techniques and materials used to build it.
Ulman said two of the county's largest commercial developers, Commercial Office Properties Trust, and Manekin Corp., are investing in green building technology, but the bill, if adopted, would speed the process and get more companies involved. If approved, the measure would affect the planned redevelopment of downtown Columbia.
"The idea is to provide the incentive to reduce the early costs," Ulman said, adding that revenue losses would be minimal. If every new building in the county meets the highest environmental standard, it would cost the county $3.7 million in lost property taxes, he said, but in practice, the loss should be under $1 million a year.
The second bill would require that county government set an example by making any public structure using at least 30 percent in public funds reach a "silver" level of LEED certification. That would not include school buildings, however, because the school board is legally independent, but Ulman said he would "strongly encourage" school officials to adopt the green standards, too -- even in renovation projects.
The third bill would seek to entice residential developers to use so-called "green neighborhood" standards by manipulating Howard's housing allocation system. The county allows builders 1,850 permits for new homes each year, including 250 units a year in the rural or western county. Ulman would allow builders to compete for 100 of those western allocations that could be used anywhere in the county if they use environmental techniques designed to slow or stop storm water runoff into streams, restore animal habitats, limit paving, use energy-saving outdoor lights and other outdoor features.
"The way we are isn't the way we want to be," said Jim Caldwell, a former director of the Montgomery County Department of the Environment, who also serves on Ulman's commission.
Peter Z. Garver, director of Development Services for Corporate Office Properties Trust, said that adding features to reach the silver rating typically adds only 1 percent to the cost of a building. A gold-rated building might cost up to 3 percent more to build, but it pays for itself in six to eight years and then the built-in savings begin.
Garver's firm, the largest office developer in Howard County, has 25 buildings in the program, though 21 are being evaluated for their environmental score.
He said using higher standards pays off in different ways. It saves energy and reduces liability risks from mold and other hazards, and the buildings are easier to maintain and keep attracting tenants. In addition, all the materials are easily available.
"It's really about high-performance buildings. We don't use exotic stuff," Garver said.
David Pratt, a green-building consultant who is on the county commission and is the Baltimore regional representative for the U.S. Green Building Council, said the business community is catching on, but the new county laws, if approved, will give the entire movement a boost.
County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, called Ulman's ideas "intriguing. I commend the executive and his staff for their vision, but I'd like to see more detail," he said. "I strongly support the county setting a good example" with its own buildings, he added.
The bills have not been drafted yet.