Conference Attendees High on Low-Impact Development

April 9, 2007 – Two years ago, low-impact development, or LID, was just a concept. Today, three dozen Bay State communities have adopted that concept, which promises to preserve natural resources and reduce construction costs.

Last week, more than 300 developers, town planners, engineers and consultants gathered at the First Annual Low Impact Development Conference and Vendor Fair for the Real Estate Industry at the Sheraton Hotel in Framingham.

“Studies have provided plenty of evidence that we are not building enough housing and Gov. [Deval] Patrick has emphasized the need for new businesses to grow the economy,” said Kurt Gaertner, director of Sustainable Development at the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (EOEA). “The good news is that by implementing techniques like LID through careful site selection and better development practices, we can address all of these issues.”

Gaertner was the first in a parade of speakers to endorse LID, described as a combination of techniques designed to lessen the impact of development on the environment. Under that kind of construction, houses are built closer together and open space is preserved with smaller roads and shared driveways.

In addition, the use of permeable paving allows rainwater into the ground at a slower rate and rain gardens, also known as bioretention fields, are used to naturally retain and filter stormwater. The result is more green space with amenities such as hiking trails for residents to enjoy, according to proponents.

Traditionally, housing development in Massachusetts has been based on conventional zoning that often results in sprawl, where wooded areas are leveled without regard for the landscape’s natural features, LID proponents say.

In a typical subdivision, paved roads are wider than they have to be and commercial projects result in a sea of parking lots, LID advocates insist. Sprawl, they say, results in large impervious surfaces where catch-basins collect storm water and pipe it into detention ponds that often discharge the polluted water into streams and tributaries.

In contrast, when LID methods are used, rainfall infiltrates the ground and replenishes wetlands, streams and the groundwater that becomes drinking water, according to advocates.

EOEA’s Gaertner argues that LID smart-growth techniques allow municipalities to reduce their infrastructure and maintenance costs, as well as balance growth while protecting the environment.
“We encourage LID because it helps to preserve the integrity of ecological and biological resources and helps with water quality, groundwater recharge and all those aspects of environmental stewardship our agency is accountable for,” he said.

Critically Important

Andrew Crane, president of the Home Builders Association of Massachusetts, said the trade group has embraced LID.

“Whether installing Energy Star-rated appliances or using recycled materials, there are a number of simple steps we can take to ensure that we use the limited resources and protect the environment,” he said. (Energy Star is a program of the U.S. government that promotes energy-efficient consumer products.) “As advances in technology bring us new and different ways to undertake LID projects, you can be sure that our members will embrace and utilize this technology.”

Susan Studlien, director of the Office of Environmental Stewardship at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said LID is critically important to New England.

“Storm water is one of the leading causes of water quality impairments in our water bodies, which is why it is a national as well as a regional EPA priority,” she said. “LID enables us to treat rainwater as an asset before it becomes a pollutant. LID increases the ability of the land to recharge and filter rainwater, thus preserving groundwater and the flows of our streams and avoiding huge volumes of water that can cause flooding and erosion.”

Richard A. Claytor, principal at Horsley Witten Group in Sandwich, noted that LID is the opposite of traditional subdivision development where 1- and 2-acre lots are often required by local zoning along with 32-foot-wide streets and 30- to 40-foot setbacks for single-family homes.

“These requirements create a fairly enormous footprint in the landscape and that has consequences not just in infrastructure costs but the land costs,” he said.

Claytor said one of the best examples of LID can be found at The Pinehills in Plymouth. The 3,000-acre wooded site has more than 1,000 homes and 60,000 square feet of retail space built in the woods. More than 2,000 acres of forestland remain as open space, with condominiums and custom homes built around woods, water and golf courses.

“Pinehills maintained 70 percent of the development as open space with golf courses and forests so the houses are clustered in pods,” he said. “These homes are not inexpensive but are very desirable.”
In an interview during a break at the conference, Andrea Cooper, smart-growth coordinator at EOEA, acknowledged the challenge to convince local officials to discourage traditional development. Still, she noted that since 2000, dozens of communities including Westminster, Framingham, Paxton and Franklin have embraced the LID concept.

“Communities are resistant for a number of reasons,” she said. “Officials often tell me they’ve been doing things the same way for years and now they are expected to change. It can be difficult.”
But Cooper added that she is convinced more communities will adopt LID guidelines in the coming years. She said in small workshops, officials are getting the message that infrastructure and maintenance costs will be less expensive.

“We started talking about the concept a few years ago and now some communities are making changes,” she said. “We are very optimistic.”