March 13, 2013

Green Buildings Checklist Addresses Energy, Waste And Sustainability Issues

When Princeton Council next convenes on April 1, an ordinance designed to make the town more environmentally sustainable is likely to be adopted. The Green Development Information Checklist was enthusiastically received by members of the governing body when it was introduced earlier this month. The initiative earned an equally warm reception from the Planning Board at its meeting last week.

More than a year in the making, the measure represents a joint effort of the Princeton Environmental Commission (PEC), the town’s planning department, and the non-profit Sustainable Princeton. The checklist asks potential developers specific questions on the eco-friendly aspects of their proposals, touching on everything from wetlands to bike storage.

“What we were seeing more and more at the Environmental Commission was that projects would come in, and they weren’t addressing environmental issues at all, or were very sporadic in their approach С in sort of a piecemeal fashion,” says Heidi Fichtenbaum, a member of the PEC and an architect with Farewell Architects. “We wanted to provide guidance to developers, so when they were getting ready to start a project, they would have a place to find all of the information they needed about sustainability. It is a resource for them. In addition to outlining issues and strategies, there would be information on very specific resources they could use to assist them in answering questions about sustainability.”

The checklist is voluntary, because New Jersey is governed by the state building code which does not require developers to include green measures in their projects. “We are looking, in the PEC, at strategies to make some elements of this enforceable,” Ms. Fichtenbaum says. “But that’s the next step.”

In the meantime, the focus is on three main topics: Energy, waste, and water.

“Energy is at the top of the list because it encompasses a lot,” says Ms. Fichtenbaum. “We’re very much focused on how much energy buildings use. Right now in the U.S., buildings use roughly 40 percent of energy, and that is huge С almost half the pie. We feel like we’re at a really, really critical juncture in our climate.

“Next is waste, which contributes to greenhouse gases and pollutes our groundwater. And we’re running out of landfill space. The final piece is water — how much potable water we use, how much sanitary waste we produce. The truth is if we had no fossil fuels left on our planet, then life could still continue. But if we didn’t have access to clean water, life would not continue. You have to have sunlight and water for life on the planet.”

Several other communities, such as West Windsor, have environmental checklists for builders. Some are “yes and no” surveys, but Princeton’s is designed to be more extensive. “The usefulness of this list is to provide information to create a feedback loop,” Ms. Fichtenbaum says. “It helps the developers, and also provides an opportunity for the Planning Board to ask intelligent questions and make informed decisions.”

The list is also a way to let developers know that sustainability is important to Princeton residents. Adoption of the list could also push the town to the next level of certification with the organization Sustainable Jersey, Ms. Fichtenbaum says.

While recent difficulties surrounding developer AvalonBay’s proposal for the former Princeton Hospital site and the Planning Board’s rejection of their plan now being challenged in court are relevant, the checklist was in the planning stages long before the company came on the scene.

“The checklist addresses issues that kept coming up, time and time again,” Ms. Fichtenbaum says. “Obviously it applies to AvalonBay, but it was definitely not the impetus. This is a much bigger issue of our town that goes back a long way, and I hope it will be around for a long time.”