City council says yes to green building

Council members recognize sustainability as means to destroy scary sea monster

Several years ago, a professor of ethnic studies told his class that the one book every student attending an American university should read is the Bible, purely because of its pervasive impact on Western civilization. Another professor, this one of anthropology, made the same recommendation, touting the scriptures’ folkloric riches. I’ve yet to heed the advice, but as many biblical stories have found their way into intellectual and popular culture, I’ve come to know some, such as the tale in the Old Testament of Leviathan, an enormous beast that lived in the sea. Centuries later, in the mid-1600s, Thomas Hobbes wrote of a social contract, using the Leviathan image as a metaphor for a figure he reverently regarded as an absolute authority, able to squash the rebellious hopes of the masses.

Modern society faces our fair share of Leviathans. Never-ending war in the Middle East, neoliberalism, Rupert Murdoch’s media dynasty—you name it. Here in Sacramento, we have plenty, one being the same Leviathan faced by the Earth’s population at large, what may be the most enormous of them all: the climate crisis. But we won’t go down without a fight, it seems.

The Sacramento City Council committed itself to combating global warming, adopting the finalized Sustainability Master Plan in December. Mayor Heather Fargo reinforced the necessity of local leadership, noting how scientists think we have about a decade to take drastic steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions enough to make a notable difference.

During last month’s city council meeting, council members also adopted a green-building program, designed to promote sustainable development and make Sacramento “the most livable city in America.”

“Green building, it has pretty much been determined, is a key method to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions,” said Bob Chase, chief building official for the city, before turning the microphone over to assistant planner Jamie Cutlip, who spent six months spearheading the green-building project.

The city defines green building as a whole-systems approach that encompasses site selection, water and energy efficiency, material and resource conservation, and indoor air quality. Its program incorporates voluntary and mandatory guidelines and checklists for private commercial and residential development, drawing on existing guidelines, such as LEED and GreenPoint Rated. Cutlip’s comprehensive list of recommendations includes expedited permitting, fee waivers and—when funding allows—technical assistance for builders and homeowners.

A few incentives already have been acted on by the city council. In July of last year, council waived fees for the installation and repair of solar-photovoltaic systems on existing residential buildings. In October, council suspended fees for solar water heaters on existing residential units until December of 2008. Another incentive allows solar systems erected on top of buildings to exceed up to 20 percent of zoning height requirements.

The design-review process used to require mechanical equipment, such as solar structures or wind turbines, to be hidden from view, but now, “We want to celebrate that [technology],” Chase said.

Other recommendations include parking reductions, density bonuses and greater enforcement of existing ordinances, such as the city’s water-efficient landscaping program, which requires drought-tolerant landscaping.

The Department of Utilities offers storm-water management credits for projects that incorporate measures to reduce runoff. The city’s Infill Strategy Program provides water-development fee waivers and sewer-impact fee waivers for building projects that promote infill developments.

Cutlip balanced measures developed by national programs with what’s best suited for Sacramento’s climate and geography. For instance, she didn’t place pervious pavement as a top priority because our region has high clay-based soil, making the pavement potentially less effective than when it is used atop sandy soil.

The council members’ excitement about Sacramento’s move in a sustainable direction reminded me of another important piece of literature I’ve never read, in which Ralph Waldo Emerson muses, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm,” in the transcendental manner that made him both wise and a hopeless romantic.

The city’s general-fund budget won’t cover all the green-building recommendations, but several measures are no- or low-cost and can be incorporated immediately. Ideally, the council agreed, the city needs to find the money to staff a full-time sustainability coordinator position. In the meantime, council members hope the green-building program will create momentum that will carry on throughout the city. And a little romanticism in the face of a monstrous sea demon never hurt anyone. As long as it’s soon followed by real action and measurable results.

When it came down to it, the test of time did not bode well for the eternally pessimistic Hobbes, as history proved repeatedly that even the biggest Leviathans could be beaten.