Updated Green Building Policy sets stricter standards for new developments

Updated Green Building Policy sets stricter standards for new developments
Eco-City Alexandria is a strategic city initiative to make Alexandria a sustainable community. The Eco-City Charter was adopted in 2008, and the Environmental Action Plan has guided the implementation of the City's environmental programming since 2009, according to the city website. (Photo Credit: City of Alexandria website)

By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

At its public hearing Saturday, city council approved an update to the city’s Green Building Policy that sets stricter environmental standards for new developments.

The new policy is an update to the Green Building Policy council adopted in 2009. Based on the new policy, city staff estimates that new developments will have a 20 percent reduction in energy use, 29 percent reduction in water use and 3 percent reduction in green gas emissions, compared to developments abiding by the 2009 standards.

Staff’s proposal was informed by a 15-member task force composed of environmental advocates, technical experts, private developers, land use attorneys and representatives from Alexandria City Public Schools, the city’s environmental policy commission and the planning commission, according to Urban Planner Stephanie Free.

The policy update, which was initiated in fall 2018, features three major components: increased minimum certification for projects requiring a development site plan or development special use permit, priority performance points for certification and enhanced public development standards.

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The first refers to the certification levels outlined in different third-party rating systems for green building standards. The city sets specific benchmark requirements for three systems: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, Green Globes and EarthCraft.

The new policy sets higher standards for public development than private development, although requirements for both types increased from those outlined in the 2009 policy.

LEED is the most widely used green building rating system in the world, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED ratings are based on a system where projects earn points across various categories such as water efficiency, sustainable sites and innovation.

Based on the new green building policy, public developments in Alexandria must now meet LEED Gold standards – between 60 and 79 points – while private developments must meet LEED Silver standards, between 50 and 59 points. The standard outlined in the 2009 policy was LEED Certified – 40 to 49 points – for residential buildings and LEED Silver for non-residential buildings.

Projects not using the LEED system will need to meet the equivalent in Green Globes, EarthCraft or another third-party rating system.

During the public hearing period for the topic, several residents requested that the city recognize the National Green Building Standard rating system.

“I will say that LEED is more prescriptive. It’s not as flexible as some other programs,” Kelly Gillespie, owner of energy rating company Kelly Green Energy Raters, said. “All of these programs are great. It’s just that some have more flexibility than others and … cost.”

Karl Moritz, director of the Department of Planning & Zoning, said other third-party rating systems weren’t out of the question. However, using those systems would require the DSP or DSUP applicant to prove their project meets standards equivalent to the city’s minimum LEED, Green Globe and EarthCraft requirements.

“Others can come in and they can assert that a different rating system works,” Moritz said. “They just have to do the work to show us that they’re getting the points in the categories that matter most to Alexandria, which are things like energy efficiency, water reduction, indoor air quality and others. It’s just that we haven’t done the pre-work for them.”

Specific green building categories having greater weight in Alexandria is another component of the updated Green Building Policy. When considering new developments, city staff will encourage projects to prioritize energy use, water efficiency and indoor environmental quality. Factors in these categories include energy use intensity reduction, the use of renewable energy, reducing indoor and outdoor water use, daylighting and using low-emitting materials.

The third major component of the updated Green Building Policy holds public developments to even higher standards, requiring developers to use 100 percent green infrastructure for stormwater treatment and meet a Net-Zero Energy standard. Zero energy buildings consume only as much energy as can be produced onsite through renewable resources, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

The staff report for the policy stated that public developments must meet the NZE and stormwater treatment standards “unless it is technically infeasible, not cost effective and situationally inappropriate.” The planning commission deleted the language allowing for exceptions to these standards. Council approved the planning commission recommendation.

Despite removing the flexibility language, the policy still allows council to consider projects on a case-by-case basis.

“[The policy] wouldn’t bind you or a future council from approving a project that does not meet the Green Building Policy. You would still retain that ability,” Moritz said.

Mayor Justin Wilson asked what the NZE standard would mean for next year’s capital improvement program.

“Should we expect that with adoption of this policy that the CIP that you bring to us … will include the necessary funding for all of our public buildings, both city and schools, to be meeting that net-zero standard?” Wilson asked.

City Manager Mark Jinks said he expected the CIP budget to increase, in part because of the Green Building Policy.

“When you see the CIP next February, there will be money sufficient included in there to meet what is expected in regards to net zero,” Jinks said. “There also will be money in there given more construction prices and any other changes that have happened since the last time we did the CIP, so I certainly expect for various reasons the numbers to go up, but the intent when those are priced is that they recognize this is our new level [of green building] that we will meet unless we run into criteria we absolutely can’t find a way around.”

The new policy standards will take effect in March 2020.

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