Atlanta City Council misses opportunity to pass sustainable building ordinance

By Guest Columnist LYNNETTE YOUNG, CEO and executive director of Sustainable Atlanta

For the last 18 months, Sustainable Atlanta has engaged leaders and experts from Atlanta’s academic, business, governmental sectors and non-profits to work on updating Atlanta’s current building code to make the city a better place to live, work and play.

Unfortunately, the Atlanta City Council missed a tremendous opportunity by shelving the Atlanta Sustainable Building Ordinance (ASBO) during their last meeting as a Council on December 7, 2009.

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By making the decision to not pass this piece of legislation that protects the health and welfare of all Atlantans, they have marred their legacy. They ignored an opportunity to address some of the most critical issues facing the city such as human health, water conservation, energy efficiency and heat island effect. In doing so, they have compromised the quality of life we will leave for future generations.

All parties agree that the ordinance is a technically sound piece of legislation. Sustainable Atlanta worked to ensure the ASBO involved compromise and consensus-based agreement amongst all parties.

Unfortunately, it is impossible to please everyone. The point where compromise fails is the place where leadership becomes necessary when determining the best course of action. This is where the City Council ignored the opportunity and failed to provide needed guidance. Now the ordinance will have to be reintroduced by the new council or new administration

The ASBO would impact the health of Atlantans’ in addition to the city’s environmental and economic sustainability. Numerous studies and articles have explored the link between building quality and worker health. Research shows that LEED rated buildings help enhance the indoor environment and reduce absenteeism, respiratory ailments, allergies and asthma.

Furthermore, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America named Atlanta the Asthma Capital of the U.S. in 2007 and ranked Atlanta in the top 10 worst cities for asthma in the last four years. The ASBO would have directly addressed two causes of Atlanta’s poor air quality by mandating higher energy efficiency standards and minimizing the heat island effect.

One of the most important sections of the ordinance addressed water use. In light of the recent federal judge ruling that Metro Atlanta communities are not entitled to water use drawn from Lake Lanier beyond 1970 levels, water conservation should be among our elected leaders’ top priorities. In addition, the ASBO would lessen the burden on municipal water supply and wastewater systems by reducing the overall use of portable water within new buildings by 40 percent.

Also, let’s not forget the ranking from Forbes magazine in November that called Atlanta “the most toxic city in the country.” Rankings should not dictate public policy, but they do serve as frames of reference. Whether Atlanta is the most toxic city or not is irrelevant; it shouldn’t even be a contender. Unfortunately, perception is reality.

The ASBO would also help ensure Atlanta’s position as a leader in proven and accepted building practices while improving Atlanta’s environmental and economic competitiveness.

The longer Atlanta waits to update its existing building code, the further behind we will fall. While Atlanta’s development community deserves praise for their leadership in green building, we cannot rest on past laurels. In 2008, SustainLane ranked Atlanta third in the country for green building, falling from the city’s number one ranking in 2007. It is also important to note that the majority of the buildings contributing to this ranking were institutional and not private.

Atlanta needs to focus on the triple bottom line of sustainability: people, profit and planet to attract the best employers and jobs – particularly in communities that are traditionally underserved. This measure would improve Atlanta’s competitiveness with other leading cities and even provide a competitive edge to businesses.

As we enter 2010 and transition into a new administration and council, now is the time to look ahead. We must think about the future of this city we call home. In my years of service in city government, I know our officials sometimes miss the boat.

Even so, there is still an opportunity for the City Council to look towards protecting the health and welfare of all Atlantans. This is only one piece of legislation where we need city leadership to move us forward in making Atlanta a more viable city.

I hope 2010 is the year our elected officials work together and provide the leadership to pass legislation that will protect Atlantans’ health, environment and wallets.

Note to readers: Lynnette Young wrote the first guest column for SaportaReport last February. So glad she’s back for an encore.

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