Salt Lake City mayor wants green rules in black and white

By Derek P. Jensen
Salt Lake City, UT (November 16, 2008)- Salt Lake City has long walked its environmental talk. But to be a truly green city, Mayor Ralph Becker’s team is using its black pen to cut the red tape. Marking the first major overhaul since the mid-90s, capital planners are rewriting the city’s code book to help ensure sustainability for generations to come.


That includes everything from helping owners of historical homes replace single-pane windows or add solar panels to allowing public gardens where residents can sell backyard produce from their front stoop. In the name of urban forestry, the city may even start planting trees in homeowners’ front yards.
“It’s an entire rewrite of the city code to see where we are shooting ourselves in the foot and where we can be more progressive,” says Jennifer Bruno, a policy analyst for the City Council.
The so-called sustainability project also purges outdated ordinances that now seem laughable, albeit quaint. For instance, who knew city rules still account for “night soil” to dump bed pans? Or what about “clinkers” for disposing hot coals? “There’s stuff that really needs to be cleaned up,” shrugs Vicki Bennett, the city’s director of sustainability. But besides taking the white-out to antiquated rules, the capital is looking at state-of-the-art measures to go green. Colorado-based Clarion Associates, which has national and international experience, was retained for $100,000. Local expertise will come from consultants Bear West Co. and Fehr & Peers.
Already, the team has highlighted 10 areas- from alternative energy and air pollution to food production and nutrition- to improve the quality of life for future generations. “It’s kind of reshaping the way we look at our city ordinances and our policies,” says Becker, who characterized the enterprise as fast but appropriately sensitive. “We are the first city in the country to have a comprehensive sustainability ordinance.”
During the next month, city leaders will identify weaknesses and opportunities in existing codes, which will be presented at open houses by year’s end. The first-year mayor hopes to complete the rewrite by February.
Bennett says some rules can be tweaked, reworked or thrown out. She hopes to solve “barriers and impediments” to the creation of a more walkable and livable community. Some highlights: Provide incentives for transit-oriented development, place large recycle containers in office buildings, and identify south-facing structures for solar access.
Bennett hopes to spur urban gardens by making it legal to sell backyard produce in front yards. “Make that a right that they could have a small-home business,” she explains. She points to talk from the pioneer era that people were told they needed two fruit trees to boost the food supply as the valley was settled. “Wouldn’t it be neat if we had that much fresh fruit.”
Some changes- such as the promotion of xeriscaping and the new streamside ordinance to protect natural streams- already are done. But environmental safeguards could go further, including an aggressive policy to provide front-yard trees for willing homeowners. “Trees would flourish there,” says Bennett, noting few cities employ the practice. “It really is state-of-the-art to do that.”
The challenge, officials concede, is upgrading codes in historical districts without compromising the character or value of classic structures. Bennett says existing restrictions across the Avenues and Marmalade to Central City and Harvard-Yale could be negotiated. Right now, Bruno notes some owners must secure new construction permits if they want to install an energy-efficient heating or cooling system that accounts for more than 50 percent of the building’s value. A rewrite could erase such red tape.
Becker, an urban planner by trade, is confident a balance can be met. “There needs to be a sensitivity to historic neighborhoods and historic homes,” the mayor says. “But I don’t see that as being incompatible with sustainability.”
Here are the areas under review that could be overhauled as early as February:
* Water quality and conservation
* Alternative energy
* Mobility and transportation
* Urban forestry
* Housing accessibility and diversity
* Community health and safety
* Food production and nutrition
* Recycling and waste reduction
* Open space, parks and trails
* Climate change and air pollution
* Environmental ordinances
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