Green vs. Grey Infrastructure? Practical Incentives for Developers to Consider “Going Green”

Stormwater Management:

One of the biggest threats to our waterways and impediments in providing safe and clean water to our nation’s communities is stormwater runoff. With the construction of impervious materials that abound from the development of buildings, roads, and parking lots, it’s no surprise that rainwater has trouble getting absorbed into the ground. So where does it go? The answer — rainwater runs off into storm drains and ditches, and along its journey over various impenetrable surfaces picks up contaminants, such as oil from automobiles, and countless other waste materials and trash. Green infrastructure (GI) seeks to improve stormwater management and urban runoff.

Controlling Combined Storm Overflow Events:

A concern that’s helped bring GI into focus with community leaders and local decision makers — including mayors of both big and smaller cities — is the ongoing challenge to reduce stormwater runoff that contributes to combined sewer overflow events (CSOs). These overflow events most often occur in urban areas where there’s Combined Sewer Systems (CSS). A CSS is where sanitary sewage water (domestic, commercial, and industrial wastewater that drains from sinks, showers, and toilets), stormwater itself, and urban runoff water merge with one another and travel within the same pipe. If the capacity of the treatment plant where the water is routed to can’t handle the amount of water collected — especially during a heavy rainfall — then the excess untreated or partially treated sewer water gets routed and dumped into our rivers, bays, and harbors. In addition to dumping this toxic soup into our waterways, the untreated water often backs up into the sewers and inundates residential and commercial basements. The implementation of GI can help prevent or reduce storm water from entering our cities’ sewer systems and, as a consequence, help relieve our overburdened sewer systems. Some real world GI examples include grass swales, curb grass vegetative bump outs, tree boxes, bio-retention basins, pervious pavement, as well as larger landscape practices, such as surface infiltration basins, and wet ponds.

From the Developer’s Perspective — Is GI Economically Feasible?

The question that developers want answered when GI is proposed in a project is…what’s its cost to implement? Understandably, they want to know whether it’ll cost more to “go green” than “go grey.” Developers need to know upfront what tangible financial benefits they can take advantage of to help eliminate or reduce any skepticism when an idea to “go green” with a project is floated. Take for example my home state of New Jersey. Developers in NJ need to be aware of the financial benefits that range from reduced energy costs and regulatory benefits, such as an increase in gaining planning permission, to groundwater recharge credits, as well as the likelihood of receiving a quicker review process. As developers will tell you, “time is money.”

Financial benefits are most often extended to developers on a local level so it’s important to be well informed about your local municipal land use law. That said, local governments often turn to creative measures in the form of “incentives” to encourage the use of GI practices on private property developments. For new development projects, incentives are often found in the development steps, such as building permits and stormwater permits, or other development codes and requirements, to encourage GI. In already developed areas, incentives can be designed to encourage private property owners to retrofit their properties to include GI.

The primary examples of local incentives for GI that can produce real cost-savings for developers are: (i) stormwater fee discounts; (ii) the expediting of permits; (iii) the issuance of grants; and (iv) the issuance of rebates and installation financing. These programs usually are available locally and can add up in the cost-savings column. Local governments also benefit because of the flexibility they have to shape their programs to their local community’s needs or a specific geographical area’s needs. Notably, we haven’t even touched on the intangibles that come with implementing GI, which includes typically an upward trend in the marketability of properties that incorporate GI and an increase in property and land values from an overall positive buzz in the market with prospective purchasers of properties or units in a building.

The takeaway — developers don’t need to shy away from GI, but instead need to be keyed in on what financial benefits are available to them state-to-state and locality-to-locality so they can properly evaluate the costs and benefits for the particular project they’re contemplating or undertaking and avail themselves of those benefits.

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