Local emissions

Battling greenhouse gas one suburb at a time


Cities and counties frequently question developers about the traffic, public safety, wildlife and water consequences of new projects. But there is another concern voiced lately in a growing number of jurisdictions: the contribution of new developments to greenhouse gas emissions.

Local governments are at the forefront of greenhouse gas reduction efforts because they have a better handle on where the emissions are coming from and, ultimately, how to deal with them, explained Toni Hardesty, director of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality.

"Cities or counties—many of them are taking on this challenge of climate change—really need to evaluate for themselves what makes sense for their city," Hardesty said.

Even if global treaties on climate change become U.S. policy and the Obama administration follows through on its promise of federal measures to address greenhouse gas emissions, the onus to curb this pollution will still come down to the local level, where cities and counties regulate land use and zoning.

According to several recent reports, land-use planning using "smart growth" principles can reduce the number and distance of vehicle trips, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.

In addition, energy consumption from residential and commercial buildings, which accounts for one-third of global carbon emissions, can be significantly curtailed through local ordinances, building codes and mitigation requirements.

But the pronounced absence of federal—and in many instances, state—leadership on this issue, and the estimated 36,000 new homes on the drawing board in Ada County, well beyond any city's area of impact, do not bode well for planning with an eye to reducing emissions.

Still, some local governments, including the City of Boise, are taking matters into their own hands.

Idaho's footprint

While Idaho contributes only a small amount (about .5 percent) to the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, the state's emissions are rising faster than those of the nation as a whole, increasing 31 percent from 1990 to 2005, while national emissions rose by only 16 percent. Idaho's per capita emission rate is also higher than the national average.

That's according to a recently completed greenhouse gas emissions inventory that Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter ordered last year in an attempt to formulate a policy on the role of state government in reducing greenhouse gasses. Some state agencies are now using this information to reduce their own carbon footprints, but to date, the Legislature has not used it to implement the recommendations in the 2007 Idaho Energy Plan, or for broader policy making.

As one of the fastest growing states in the nation, Idaho is at a critical point for implementing land-use planning to control greenhouse gas emissions. According to a report by Smart Growth America, while Idaho's population grew 50 percent between 1980 and 2005, the number of vehicle miles traveled increased 114 percent, one of the highest jumps in the nation.

An Urban Land Institute report found that the disproportionate increase in automobile use in Ada County is not surprising because most of the county's new residential development takes place in small, disconnected subdivisions consisting primarily of single-family homes: "This pattern of development has adverse effects on the region because it segregates land uses and forces people into their vehicles to get from one place to another. This, in turn, increases traffic congestion, which degrades the region's air quality."

The report recommended that, "the county and its cities upgrade their subdivisions by enhancing design standards, encouraging connectivity and introducing a mix of housing types."

What's happening in Boise?

Boise City councilor Maryanne Jordan agrees, explaining that this is the philosophy behind Boise's ongoing revision of its subdivision ordinance.

"We are looking at making the best utilization of the land. We don't want to add to the sprawl pattern," Jordan said. Instead, the new ordinance will incorporate design elements to maintain value for homeowners and incorporate interconnectivity and walkability.

Revising the city subdivision rules is just one part of Blueprint Boise, the city's process to develop a new comprehensive plan and update and modernize its land-use and development regulations.

Jordan emphasized that while revising the comprehensive plan—a vision for the city—is important, it is essential to update the city's regulations at the same time to ensure that the plan is implemented. She explained that because the city's regulations were not revised when the 1997 comprehensive plan was adopted, development proceeded largely as it had before.

On Aug. 16, 2006, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter signed the U.S. Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement, making Boise the first city in Idaho, and the 280th city in the nation, to endorse the agreement. Five other Idaho mayors have since signed on.

The agreement, authored by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, asks cities to take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through measures such as energy-efficient building practices, alternative fuels and improved transportation and land-use planning.

As a result, Boise is developing its own greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan. In early 2007, Bieter appointed an advisory committee to assist with the emissions reduction plan. The committee includes representatives from business, education, government and environmental groups.

The committee issued a report in July that recommended some 85 improvements in building and construction, renewable energy, transportation, solid waste and other areas in the city's purview.

For example, one recommendation is that new city buildings meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards. And for the public, the committee recommends that new residential construction meet Energy Star standards.

The city has organized the committee's recommendations into four tiers ranging from those actions that are achievable now or already in progress, to those that require major, long-term commitment and "might even be considered 'cutting edge.'"

One recommendation already in progress is reducing fossil fuel consumption through improved management of the city's fleet of vehicles, such as decreasing the use of gas-guzzlers and increasing the number of hybrids. Another initiative in the works is to increase recycling throughout the community by allowing co-mingling of recyclable material (except glass) in one large container, and increasing the number of glass drop-off locations.

The "cutting edge" recommendations include providing financial assistance for residential and commercial retrofits that reduce energy use and water consumption, and a program to achieve a net zero energy use in new residential construction by 2030.

According to the committee's report, while some of the recommendations may appear extreme, they are within the scope of what is being implemented elsewhere in the country.

Regional planning and Ada County

The Boise committee also asserted that the City of Boise cannot achieve the best results without significant regional cooperation in transportation and land use.

Regional planning processes, such as Ada County's Blueprint for Good Growth, already emphasize limiting sprawl, promoting more compact, mixed-use development, alternative forms of transportation and minimizing vehicle miles.

To implement the regional plans, however, each city and county must incorporate them into their comprehensive plans, and also update corresponding regulations. While Boise is attempting to do this through Blueprint Boise, there is no indication that Ada or Canyon counties or other cities in the valley intend to make the necessary regulatory changes.

Ada County's comprehensive plan, revised last year, includes only some of the measures recommended in the Blueprint, and its only new regulations are those authorizing more planned communities.

Canyon County revised its comprehensive plan in 2005, and is currently revisiting its land-use regulations, including the planned community ordinance. Neither county plan provides a regional or cooperative approach to development.

The Urban Land Institute's report on growth in Ada County warned against unilateral actions, predicting that the cities would act in their own self-interest.

"Without the regional cooperation," the report states, "the long-term economic viability of the Treasure Valley is put at risk."

Judi Brawer is a Boise environmental attorney and fire spinner.