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Sick of sprawl?

(Editor's note: Kimmett is blogging about From the Ground Up, a conference on sustainable communities, hosted by the Columbia Institute last week in Harrison. This is her second entry.)

You don't need an Olympics to entice green builders to your community. And more stringent requirements won't scare them away, assures environmental consultant Kim Fowler.

She's got some advice for councils that are dealing with growing populations, aging infrastructure and impatient developers.

"Prioritize; whoever screams the loudest should not win."

Five years ago, Fowler, a senior consultant with Pottinger Gaherty, was hired to improve sustainability in Port Coquitlam. Given "free reign" to do what she wanted, she created a sustainability checklist for rezoning and development permit applications -- the first of its kind in North America.

The checklist awards points for things like mixed-use buildings, enhanced pedestrian zones and LEED design.

If municipalities are clear about what they want but also prioritize and fast-track those projects that meet green expectations, developers will do it, says Fowler. Incentives like density bonuses can help too.

"Make buildings move around trees...require oil and gas intercepts in all new parking...have a cash-in-lieu parking variance," she says.

"Cookie-cutter site design doesn't work anymore."

And it costs more, financially and ecologically. The single largest source of pollution in the Georgia Strait comes from the Iona sewage treatment plant. Like a lot of our urban infrastructure, it's aging and costs millions to service.

Municipalities are supposed to recoup these costs through development cost charges (DCC), but this provincially-mandated fee structure is not adequate and actually encourages sprawl, says Fowler.

"When you have sprawl, or a greenfield development, you can charge the max DCC," says Fowler.

"For infill don't get to charge for the base system that's already there. But it raises the problem that it's old infrastructure, and it is actually serviceable."

And then there are the citizens to contend with. Sure, we all say we want sustainable communities -- but are we willing to loosen our hold on private property rights?

Coquitlam city council recently wrapped up a two-year debate over its tree management bylaw.

"We have small builders in our community who say they are through doing business in Coquitlam," Councilor Linda Reimer told the Coquitlam Now. "They are frustrated and tired of the hoops they have to jump through, so they go do business in other communities."

Councilor Fin Donnelly was opposed the move.

"They're saying, I don't think the government has any business interfering with private property rights, which astounds me," he says.

"They will want the government to develop all the infrastructure that goes along with building communities so that they can profit from the development of their land...but they don't want bylaws that say you need to preserve some trees."

While Donnelly says a sustainability checklist is a good tool to start, councils also need to do a lot more community engagement.

"You'll have better decisions and it will be harder for small groups, with what I'll call vested interest, to not go down the path of sustainability."

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