Protestors speaking out against urban landscaping practices. Photo Credit: Florida Sierra Club
Land development issues are huge in Florida and in every state. There is not a day that goes by without land development issues in the news (see these examples: Martin County, LULU, and Amherst). Often, we see battles in courts with one side winning and the other losing. Why is it so difficult to find a middle ground? Having worked with developers on green development issues over the years, I think opportunities exist, but it takes a lot of work, trust, and giving on both sides. I outline three major roadblocks below:
1. Just plain inertia: First barrier to finding compromise is just the inertia of how development has operated over many years in Florida. Because of a whole host of regulatory hurdles (see below), developers and associated environmental consultants have a track record of navigating these hurdles and obtaining a development permit. Adding any new development practices is difficult because this means taking a bit of risk and accepting a bit of uncertainty. For example, if a developer decides to only use natives and limit turfgrass for their landscaping, a number of issues can come up. Will homebuyers like the alternative landscaping? Are there any landscapers out there that can do a competent job? Will it cost that much more to go native than to use a familiar exotic landscaping palette? Will it easily pass through development reviews conducted by government officials?
In many cases, designing and building a green development takes a lot of initiative because it is a new approach. Thus, it just takes longer initially to create a sustainable design and management scheme. For instance, it may take more research to find native plants that work for the local soil type and locating native plants may be a problem because local nurseries do not have them. Also, because of a perception of the marketplace (realtors think that people prefer ornamental bushes and turfgrass), then changing the landscaping plan to native is a perceived risk. Overall, changing the development formula is a financial risk (whether truly real or not) and uncharted territory, which leads to the next barrier -- the threat of bankruptcy.
2. Threat of bankruptcy: In most cases, the developer is borrowing significant amounts of money from a bank and they are on a deadline to show progress. Constructing a site takes a lot of money, including grading and filling, putting in roads, utilities, etc. The developer must show progress to the bank and in particular, lots must be sold on a regular basis once the initial infrastructure is built. Time is money and the longer it takes to sell the lots, the more they owe the bank and the threat of bankruptcy increases. There is a perception, whether fair or not, that green development practices cost "extra money" and many developers think homebuyers will not pay a little more for a green home and neighborhood. There are studies that demonstrate that homebuyers will pay extra for "green" but most developers want to see local successes, not a study from another locality.
During this last recession, zombie lots abounded across the U.S. This is always in the back of the mind of a developer. Thus, it takes a special developer and the right set of conditions to attempt something a little bit different. Making financial commitments is a huge stress and adding a little bit of uncertainty is not something most people would want to do. People from the outside see a particular green practice as something "easy" to do, but given the financial and regulatory hurdles, this actually may not be the case.
3. Regulation hurdles: Many of the zoning and land use designations and development review procedures may actually prohibit a green practice. For example, low impact development (LID) that utilizes a distributed stormwater treatment train (e.g., rain gardens, swales, permeable pavement) is a better way to treat water and improve water quality, but there may be substantial hurdles in city planning. I ran across an example where local city engineers where comfortable with conventional curb and gutter methods and looked at LID as problematic. It was not really the engineer's fault because there was not local research to prove that LID works, and he/she did not want to open the door to a lawsuit if nearby neighborhoods were flooded or local water quality measures not realized. In this instance, it delayed the development approval quite a bit and the developer had to build both the conventional curb and gutter and the LID stormwater treatment train. This of course costs the developer more money!
Examples abound throughout cities and towns because many zoning policies were put in place in the '70s (or earlier), with little flexibility to meet current sustainability ideas. Think of mixing commercial with residential; placing solar panel on roofs; narrowing roads, etc. -- often, current codes prove a significant barrier to successful implementation of a green practice.
Solution? It is not easy to shift the barge called conventional development towards a greener path. Many urban decision makers are involved with land development: elected officials, planners, engineers, environmentalists, architects, landscape architects, landowners, and the general public. As discussed above, major barriers exist that prevent novel approaches from being tried. I have found that the BEST way to foster implementation is to build that first model community, which means finding that maverick developer/landowner, consultants, and planning staff that collaborate to do the first project. Policy makers need to be involved to create enabling conditions, and consultants and developer will have to take some risks. Sure, mistakes will be made and perhaps not all practices adopted, but a local project that adopts a few successful strategies goes a far way towards promoting the adoption of new strategies.
Wildlife sculpture in a residential community that embraces wildlife conservation
Having an example that local decision makers can see, such as contractors, landscapers, and planners, will help make green development practices real and not an abstract concept. I have found that using a model development to showcase a green practice, talking pros and cons, piques interest and conversation. Plus, green developers and environmental consultants talk to their peers, promoting a practice. It is much more powerful for a developer to talk to another developer than any presentation from an academic. Further, having a local example works out any sticking points in the regulatory process. New practices typically slow down development review because of the novelty, but once it is tried, then projects coming after have an easier time and it can even becomes the norm.
Demonstration projects may reach a few developers, but to reach the majority of developers, often one needs to provide financial incentives. Policies can provide incentives to do this. For example, incentives for developers include permit breaks (reduced fees) or density bonuses for developers (so they can build more homes). Plus, when buying a home, each of us have to ask questions about the development and any green practices. The more people ask about green practices, the more developers will listen and explore new strategies.
The next time you think about protesting a development, turn it into an opportunity to establish a dialogue about green practices and learn more about the barriers developers face. Perhaps a "win-win" solution exists if communication lines are opened.