Forest Heights, Maryland. Image by Payton Chung licensed under Creative Commons.

For the first time, Prince George’s County could require developers to build in a more environmentally-friendly way. The proposed standards requiring green building features are part of the county’s ongoing zoning ordinance update.

Many of the area master plans in Prince George’s encourage developers to follow green building practices or attain certification, but these plans only provide guidelines. Ultimately it is up to the developer to include (or not to include) environmentally-friendly elements. The changes in this zoning ordinance makes some of them mandatory.

Including green building standards in the ordinance will help ensure that going forward, new development in Prince George’s will meet a minimum level of environmental friendliness. This in turn will help protect natural resources, reduce emissions, conserve energy, support urban agriculture, and generally support better health for everyone in the county.

Prince George's farmers could benefit from the zoning changes.  Image by Brittney Drakeford used with permission.

These are some of the options for building “green”

The proposed zoning ordinance outlines various green building elements that emphasize different aspects of environmentally-friendly construction.

Some are aimed at providing amenities for alternative transportation modes, including building near transit so people don’t have to drive, installing electric vehicle charging stations, and building showering and dressing facilities for bicycle commuters.

Other options include redeveloping or adaptive reuse of an existing building,building features that conserve energy such as “cool roofs” or tankless water heaters, using alternative energy such as installing solar panels, and sourcing building materials from recycled products or local areas.

Another option is supporting green space and urban agriculture by retaining original vegetation or by designating on-site composting and community garden space. This is great news for local farmers and fresh food advocates.

Some of the proposed changes incentivize developers to build around transit. Image by Matt’ Johnson licensed under Creative Commons.

Point systems, menus, density bonuses, and minimum compliance boost green building

The proposed zoning ordinance uses two approaches to expand green building in the county. The first is to require a minimum level of compliance for all developments of a certain size. Under this approach each potential green building feature is listed in the ordinance and given a point value.

Since features are not all equal in value, high investment features — such as having vegetated roofs covering at least 50 percent of the structures — have higher point values. Low investment features — such as limiting the amount of turf grass in a development — have lower point values.

If a proposed development meets a certain size threshold (at least 10 residential units or at least 10,000 square feet of nonresidential development), it is required to have a certain number of green building points to be approved.

Developers are instead given a “menu” of options, allowing them to build according to what is most cost-efficient or best-suited to their building site. This approach is like DC’s Green Building Act, which requires all nonresidential developments and all developments over 50,000 square feet to meet the Green Building Council certification. It does not matter which green building features are included, only that the point values for all the proposed features are greater than or equal to the minimum points required.

The second approach is to incentivize green building beyond what is already required. The proposed ordinance recommends providing a density incentive for projects that include green building features, in addition to the ones that are used to meet the point threshold. If a development does build beyond what is required, they can increase their building height by a floor, increase the Floor Area Ratio, or increase the allowable lot coverage.

This approach is similar to Arlington County’s green building bonus density program, which is tied to different levels of LEED certification, or to the optional method of development in Montgomery County’s Commercial/Residential Zone, wherein density bonuses can be earned for environmental protections as well as mobility improvements, mixing of uses, and higher quality architecture.

Image by Steve VanSickle used with permission.

Is this enough?

Currently in Prince George’s County, green building is seen as an extra amenity — something nice to have, but not necessary. While the proposals are not as stringent as the green building requirements in DC, the proposed zoning ordinance will help shift this perspective. These new regulations recognize that sustainable building practices and building for a healthier lifestyle is central to the future of Prince George’s.

The proposed zoning ordinance, which details all the green building regulations, is online. Even though the Planning Department has closed the public comment period, you can still weigh in on the changes by contacting your county councilmember.