International Municipal Lawyers Association - Local Government Blog

The Obama Administration, Sustainability and Local Initiative | January 20, 2009

Posted By: Dwight Merriam, Partner, Robinson & Cole, LLP

I am writing from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, actually its attached hotel, where my family and I are staying for the inaugural – one of the benefits of being retired military.

The Obama administration is committed to sustainability. Click here for the official statement from the campaign. Many of us will need to do a quick study of cap and trade which will be front and center. And where was he last week, but at a factory making wind turbine bolts, to promote jobs and green power.

However, as Former Speaker of the House “Tip” O’Neill so famously said, “All politics are local.” The same goes, in large measure, for sustainable development initiatives. Last month Madison, Wisconsin, held a public hearing on its proposed sustainability code, being clear about what local zoning could and could not do. For example, zoning can “allow density bonuses for green features“; zoning cannot “require solar on all commercial and institutional buildings.” Here is a draft of the report in support of the proposed code.

Among the ideas put forward are:

  • Accessory dwelling units and elderly cottages by-right

in wider range of districts.

  • Allow wider range of districts to accept mixed–use buildings.
  • Flexibility with permitting duplex units in wider range of districts.
  • Wider range of shared parking allowances.
  • Reduced parking requirements for TOD overlay districts.
  • Minimum density requirements in certain districts (e.g. TOD).
  • Incorporate “complete street” standards that accommodate walking and biking.
  • Green roofs as open space credits.
  • Accommodate greater flexibility for solar access and orientation.
  • Allow wind energy conversion (WEC) units exception

to height requirements & roof-top screening.

  • Allow smaller wind turbines in wider range of districts.

The ideas have caused quite a stir.  A writer in one business publication said: “Call this a case of liberalism via central planning gone wild.” Jeff Poor, “City of Madison, Wis. Eyes Draconian Zoning Ordinances to ‘Adapt to Climate Change’: Liberal Wisconsin capital would limit development, tree removal, fast food restaurants and parking to promote ‘sustainability.’ “Business & Media Institute, 1/14/2009.

There are some good ideas in this initiative and some that will likely fade away under the pressure of politics.


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This blog is made possible by the International Municipal Lawyers Association (IMLA), but may include guest bloggers (who are attorneys with experience in local government matters) who might or might not work for IMLA. Their views (and those expressed on this site) do not necessarily express the views of IMLA.

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