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Decatur Diary | April 18, 2014

Greening Up: Meeting explores UDO’s sustainability options

Among the community priorities to emerge during 2010’s Strategic Plan effort was sustainability. Specifically, Principle C of the adopted plan, which states “Serve as good stewards of the environment and community resources” and, beneath that, Task 12B, which instructs city leadership and staff to “update and create a unified land development ordinance that requires sustainable building practices throughout the community.”

That’s the directive but, as always, exactly how such a task might play out is a variable worthy of more specific community input to address the myriad questions of if, how or under what circumstances.

To that end, roughly forty participants joined last Wednesday evening’s discussion about how our emerging Unified Development Ordinance in Decatur might incorporate certain sustainability issues. The primary topic for the evening was high performance or “green” buildings, but the issues of outdoor lighting, animals, and unbundled parking generated a lot of comments, too.

Sustainability Session-02

The presentations (2.1mb) lasted for about an hour, with highly engaged group discussion scattered throughout the various topics. Lena Stevens, the city’s Resource Conservation Coordinator, outlined the benefits of high performance buildings and research on how the City could be a leader in this evolving topic.

The primary point? Energy and building codes set a minimum standard for performance. While they have been getting stronger in recent years, Decatur could raise the bar by setting a broader standard that looks at a building’s resource use comprehensively. Such a standard might require that people with expertise in building science are involved in developing and monitoring projects to ensure the standards are met. That’s something the community needs to decide.

Questions quite reasonably focused largely on the potential added cost and when such standards might apply. While attendees recognized the general premise that costs and benefits can be measured in many ways (indoor air quality, comfort, etc.), it was noted that example scenarios would be helpful in envisioning exactly what level of potential impact would be associated with high performance building standards, whether these would be up front or operational costs, and at what point such efforts might become the more affordable long-term approach.

Furthermore, there was the question of applicability. For example, should the same standards be applied to a kitchen renovation as they are to new construction? Again, that’s an implementation decision the community needs to make.

Caleb Racicot from TSW presented the remaining topics. Do we want to address light pollution? Should the ordinance outline how many chickens you can have? While these topics were definitely of interest, the concept of unbundled parking seemed to generate more discussion. As a new concept, it required some in-depth explanation. Under our present regulations, multi-family type buildings can require a buyer/tenant to lease or purchase a parking space, regardless of whether or not it’s needed. This presents no burden on anyone who owns a car and needs the space but, for the growing number of downtown residents looking to live car-free, it’s a significant and unnecessary expense.

Considering that a single structured parking space in a downtown condo building can easily add $20,000-$35,000 to the cost of each unit, it’s clear that our present regulations have a very real impact on the affordability of downtown housing.

To address this, Decatur could explicitly “unbundle” parking in its mixed-use areas by requiring contracts for parking to be separate and optional from those of a housing unit, office, or retail space. This would make it easier for those with a below average car use to “opt-out” from the cost of having to pay for a parking space. While parking minimums and maximums would probably not change, this could reduce the supply of parking provided in new developments to be closer to the minimum requirement, and could encouraging shared parking between uses.

Sustainability Session

As the presentations concluded, participants moved on to a series of worksheets in which they could detail the specifics of their preferences. For example, not imposing regulations beyond those presently required; encouraging greener practices; or requiring greener practices. And, beneath those, how and under what circumstances.

Next Steps

This was the third of the four UDO Drill-Down meetings. Once they conclude with next Wednesday’s meeting on new/amended zoning districts, we’ll be set for the next batch of specific dates, which will be centered around the release of the draft ordinance, community review and revision, and presentation of the final draft to the city commission. Stay tuned for those.

If you were unable to make it, there are still plenty of ways to plug in and get your thoughts on the record. Provide your own ideas and recommendations in the comments section below or submit more general comments and questions directly to the city here.

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