Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Doing the right thing? Developers, Social Responsibility and the Environment

Here is the final installment of our short series from the Bay Journal News Service. We will follow in a day or two with a summation.

Doing the Right Thing?
Developers, Social Responsibility and the Environment
By John R. Wennersten

Do developers have a responsibility to protect the environment beyond their legal obligation? They may not, but it seems increasingly true that working with communities and protecting the environment are in developers' interests.

This idea will get a real test in the coming decades on Maryland's rural Eastern Shore. There, according to a recent study by the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, as much land may be developed during the next 25 years as has been in the past 400 and environmental and community groups are working to protect their region's heritage.

Rob Etgen, Executive Director of the land conservancy, says the role of social responsibility in determining economic growth is intertwined with the idea of saving green spaces - landscapes and seascapes that serve as residential and public amenities. When communities have a roadmap delineating which lands and resources should be preserved and protected, it becomes easier for developers to concentrate on projects in areas where they are "the most appropriate," Etgen believes.

Ideas like "sustainable communities," "new urbanism" and "energy and transit-friendly planning" are becoming tools of the developer's trade. Companies that pursue them get a break from the environmental activists and hedge their actions against what might be a tougher regulatory atmosphere in the future.

Elm Street Developers, a Mclean, Virginia-based realty firm, routinely pursues green technologies in building smart growth communities on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Elm Street has been widely recognized for its willingness to invest in environmental protection to reap a more dependable long-term profit. Developers at Elm Street believe that green amenities, coupled with walkable towns with coherent centers, are what modern homebuyers want. Research conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency seems to confirm this. It indicates that only 25 percent of today's renters and buyers want large-lot houses in sprawling developments.

Architect John Torti of Torti Gallas Partners of Silver Spring, Maryland, has long been in the vanguard of what has come to be called "the New Urbanism." As a young architect, Torti grew disenchanted with designing unimaginative subdivisions. In the 1980s he began to design communities that would offer "green" housing mixed with park-like settings - a practical blend of community and environment. Torti and like-minded architects and planners were determined "to clean up the mess in the suburbs that we had helped create."

He and other green architects and developers have been able to infuse their work in projects like the King Farm Community in Rockville, Maryland or Town Center in Germantown, Maryland. Torti's success has enabled his firm to win contracts for developments in more than 47 American cities.

Real estate studies have also confirmed the demand for such developments by looking at how their prices have held up. Between 1997 and 2005, notes Lee Sobel of the EPA's Office of Policy, Economics and Innovation, there were 4,744 resales in the Kentlands and Lakelands developments, two early new urbanist communities in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Kentlands' houses commanded a 16.1 percent price premium over other houses in the area. Lakelands' achieved a 6.5 percent price premium. "Kentlands has sustained its premium year after year, and Lakelands has seen its premium grow - reaching 9.5 percent between 2002 and 2005," Sobel said.

Building infrastructure such as roads and stormwater systems for sprawling big lot developments is also increasingly expensive for developers. Developers know that ignoring trends is not smart, says Sobel, "especially those trends that affect the bottom line."

As developers increasingly look to places such as the Eastern Shore of Maryland for land on which to build new communities, they will be confronted by heightened environmental consciousness and community concern. Many environmental groups as well as established communities with a strong rural heritage do not want to see their region "sprawled and suburbanized." Towns such as Chestertown on the Eastern Shore struggle to protect themselves against sprawl, and are using litigation and political pressure to force developers to recast their vision.

"While builders, environmentalists, and planning commissioners will never see eye to eye on everything, these groups have much in common," notes Smart Growth expert, Edward T. McMahon. Developers who accept social responsibility in their decision making have everything to gain if they recognize this and work for the community's interest to create walkable, energy saving places that protect the environment.

John R. Wennersten is the author of numerous books on the Chesapeake Bay and regional environments in the Mid-Atlantic. His most recent work is Chesapeake Bay: An Environmental Biography.

Distributed by Bay Journal News Service


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