Communities dangle density carrot to promote green building (UPDATE)
Published: May 25, 2010
Tags: building permits, density, green building, Healthy Homes, Metropolitan Builders Association, plan-review fees, Tim O’Brien Homes Inc., Waukesha, Waukesha Plan Commission, zoning
Homebuilders for years have pushed municipal governments to allow higher-density projects. Now contractors in Waukesha may get their way — but there’s a catch.
City of Waukesha officials are considering guidelines that would offer incentives, including higher-density projects, to buildings that use green-building practices.
“It’s a start,” said Tim O’Brien, president of Tim O’Brien Homes Inc., Waukesha, who served on the task force that drafted the city’s proposal. “It’s a start for us to turn more toward higher density, and if the city is willing to give us higher density for green building, you are going to see more green building.”
Waukesha’s proposed guidelines would not mandate green building, but they would offer incentives to projects that follow practices supported by the city. Proposed incentives include denser development and smaller lot sizes. City zoning allows between three and five houses per acre, or up to 10 condominiums or 14 apartments per acre.
Communities with low-density regulations make it more difficult to develop sustainable housing projects that try to use less land, said Robin Pharo, president of Healthy Homes, an organization that promotes sustainable home construction. So, instead of passing zoning changes to promote more dense development, communities consider projects that exceed zoning limits on a case-by-case basis, she said.
“Everyone agrees that density is good from a green development standpoint,” Pharo said, “but there’s still a mind-set that, ‘Density is good, but I don’t want it in my backyard.’”
Homebuilders have not given up their push to have municipalities allow denser units, but have only seen a few open up to the idea recently, said J. Scott Mathie, government affairs director for the Metropolitan Builders Association in Waukesha.
“There’s always been a desire by our industry to build smaller housing types on smaller footprints,” he said.
“What’s changing now is governments are feeling the pinch a little bit that development is not occurring as frequently, and some communities — I emphasize some communities — are becoming more open to smaller lot sizes.”
But communities such as Muskego that are not changing citywide policies are giving leeway to green projects. Muskego is sticking to a minimum lot size of 2.75 acres for new subdivisions built on agricultural land in the rural southern part of the city, said Jeff Muenkel, Muskego community development director.
But city law gives developers leeway if they preserve green space, he said. If companies agree to cluster buildings on a portion of their land so more land remains undeveloped, the city lets them build more houses, Muenkel said.
“That again gives developers incentives to get bonus lots,” he said, “depending on if they do certain things in their development.”
The Waukesha green building guidelines will be reviewed Wednesday by the Waukesha Plan Commission. If the guidelines are approved, Waukesha would take a similar approach to encourage sustainable development without mandating it on private projects. O’Brien said density and environmentalism go hand-in-hand because, when people live closer together, they take up less land and drive less. He said he supports using higher density to promote green building, but also wants to have the chance to explore the option on all projects.
“I think it’s an effective incentive for developers for sure,” O’Brien said, “because you get a better yield. You put the green out of the equation and you just look at the economics of it.”