Photo by loop oh.

When the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) unveiled proposals for amended stormwater regulations this past spring, some observers were concerned that the stricter regulations would make denser development, and redevelopment of existing sites in particular, more expensive relative to low-density development. This would likely not bode well for smart growth, nor would sparser development ultimately lead to better water quality for the whole Chesapeake Bay watershed.

To DCR’s credit, a period of robust public comment on the proposals was held until Friday, and all 407 online comments can be viewed on their website. As a result of this participation, several environmental groups and experts of various disciplines have offered constructive policy solutions to address this unintended consequence, while still maintaining the original intent of the regulation.

Here’s a few creative ideas that have emerged:

David Slutzky, Chairman of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and a former senior environmental policy adviser in the Clinton white house, believes that the regulations, as they stand, will “most certainly lead to de-densification of new development activities in the [Urban Development Areas] UDAs.” In order to fairly distribute the responsibility of reducing runoff, he would like to offer developers a series of options to meet the new requirements.

His most interesting idea is a tax-credit fund used to reward redevelopment projects (former industrial sites, for example) that go the extra length to reduce impervious surfaces or implement stormwater reduction Best Management Practices (BMPs) on site. The fund would be paid into by developers, at a rate set by the water impacts of their projects, and disbursed by DCR to the most competitive redevelopments of the year. This would seem fair, considering redevelopers are the only ones currently being asked to shoulder the burden of achieving net improvements to the watershed without being offered help with the costs involved. Carrots and sticks belong together.

Senator Creigh Deeds, who also happens to be the Democratic Party’s candidate for Governor, has his own suggestions for avoiding the promotion of more sprawl, something he believes the current proposals might lead to. If stormwater requirements were measured by the house, rather than by the acre, then Deeds believes that higher density developments would perform better in the evaluation. Deeds is also in favor of a tax credit incentive for stormwater management in urban redevelopment.

The Southern Environmental Law Center simply suggests reducing the requirements for redevelopment from “return to forested levels” to “return to pre-development levels.” This reduction would only apply to redevelopment within UDAs designated by the locality. While only a minor change, the SELC hopes it will be enough to still encourage compact development.

The Rappahannock River Basin Commission wants to see the “refinement of off-site alternatives” for compact developments. There are provisions in the DCR proposal for developers to purchase credits from other sites in lieu of meeting the requirements on site, but many have pointed out that an efficient transfer system has not been adequately explained yet. The statement from the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District doesn’t exactly spell out an answer, but they do suggest that the regulations “should be examined, clarified, and written to encourage urban redevelopment and smart growth.”

All of these recommendations are encouraging to see, and DCR will likely take many of them into account in their final revisions. Environmentalist groups have evolved, as evidenced by these comments, from seeing their mission solely in terms of making all land as much like wilderness as possible to recognizing that the urban and the rural need to be treated differently to reach optimal levels of environmental protection.

As Kaid Benfield has written,

“the best thing to do environmentally is to manage and shape [growth] so that a good quality of life is maintained with the least environmental harm. This is fundamentally about per capita, or per household, thinking: how can we shape the new development so that it has the least impact per increment of growth?

This is the essence of smart growth. But it also represents a fairly radical departure from traditional environmental thinking (and much of environmental law), which focuses our attention not on per capita impacts but on particular pieces of land, parcel-by-parcel.”

It looks as if many in Virginia are making this transition.