Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA: One Less Thing for Cities to Worry About

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Had Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA gone the other way it would be a big deal for cities.  But it didn’t.  Cities own many small stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases and will benefit from not having to obtain permits for them.

The Clean Air Act regulates pollution-generating emissions from stationary source (factories, power plants, etc.) and moving sources (cars, trucks, planes, etc.).  In 2007 in Massachusetts v. EPA the Court held EPA could regulate greenhouse gases emissions from new motor vehicles.  As a result of that case, EPA concluded it was required or permitted to apply permitting requirements to all stationary sources that emitted greenhouse gases in excess of statutory thresholds.

In Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA the Court held 5-4 that EPA cannot require stationary sources to obtain Clean Air Act permits only because they emit greenhouse gases.  But, the Court concluded 7-2, EPA may require “anyway” stationary sources, which have to obtain permits based on their emissions of other pollutants, to comply with “best available control technology” BACT emission standards for greenhouse gases.  Local governments own many small stationary sources that emit greenhouse gases and will benefit from not having to obtain permits for them.

The Court reasoned that permitting all newly covered stationary sources for greenhouse gas emissions “would place plainly excessive demands on limited governmental resources is alone enough reason for rejecting it.”  EPA’s regulations would increase the number of permits by the millions and the cost of permitting by the billions.  Small sources like retail stores, offices, apartment buildings, shopping centers, schools, and churches would be covered.  States, as permitting authorities, would bear part of the burden by having to hold hearings and grant or deny permits within a year.

To avoid the result described above, EPA issued the “Tailoring Rule,” which increased the permitting threshold for greenhouse gases from 100 or 250 tons per year to 100,000 tons per year initially.  The Court concluded EPA “has no power to ‘tailor’ legislation to bureaucratic policy goals by rewriting unambiguous statutory terms.”

Finally, Court held if a stationary source is already being regulated because of its emissions of other pollutants it may be subject to BACT emission standards for greenhouse gases. “Even if the text [of the Clean Air Act] were not clear, applying BACT to greenhouse gases is not so disastrously unworkable, and need not result in such a dramatic expansion of agency authority, as to convince us that EPA’s interpretation is unreasonable.”

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About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Supreme Court Decides “Good Neighbor Provision” Clean Air Act Case

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Given the Supreme Court’s prominent role in deciding important issues of the day, it is easy to get caught up in the latest juicy Court mishap.  Justice Scalia erroneously depicted precedent in his dissent in EPA v. EME Homer City Generation, which had to be corrected. But don’t let that be the reason you read this blog post.  This case is important for cities.

The Clean Air Act’s Good Neighbor Provision prohibits upwind states from emitting air pollution in amounts that will contribute significantly to downwind states failing to attain air quality standards.  In EPA v. EME Homer City Generation the Supreme Court resolved two issues related to the Good Neighbor Provision.  Justice Ginsburg wrote the 6-2 opinion.

The Court first considered how responsibility for air pollution should be allocated.  This is no easy question when “[m]ost upwind States propel pollutants to more than one downwind State, many downwind States receive pollution from multiple upwind States, and some States qualify as both upwind and downwind.”

EPA chose cost-effectiveness in its Transport Rule.  So, for example, for nitrogen oxide, all upwind states have to reduce pollution at a cost threshold of $500 per ton.  (Spending more money EPA concluded would only minimally reduce pollution.)

The D.C. Circuit held that EPA must instead consider only each upwind state’s physically proportionate responsibility for each downwind state’s air quality problem.

The Supreme Court disagreed concluding that the Good Neighbor Provision allows EPA to consider costs.  “EPA’s cost-effective allocation of emission reductions among upwind States, we hold, is a permissible, workable, and equitable interpretation of the Good Neighbor Provision.”

EPA issued Federal Implementation Plans (FIPs) allocating each upwind state’s emissions budget.  Upwind states argued that they should have been given an opportunity to develop and implement State Implementation Plans (SIPs) before FIPs were issued.

If SIPs are inadequate EPA has two years to issue FIPs.  The upwind states in this case failed to submit adequate SIPs.  When EPA issued each state’s emissions budget it issued FIPs allocating the budgets.  The D.C. Circuit required EPA to give states a “reasonable” time period to propose SIPs implementing their budgets.  The Supreme Court disagreed noting that the Clean Air Act makes it clear that once EPA has found a SIP inadequate, EPA has a statutory obligation to issue a FIP.

States and local governments filed on both sides in this case.  Upwind states are mostly in the South and Midwest.  This case is a win for states and local governments in downwind states (and, of course, the EPA).

The Supreme Court will decide another Clean Air Act case this term involving regulating greenhouse gases emissions from stationary source.

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About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Renewed Push on Energy Efficiency Bill, But It’s Not Over Yet

There is little to get excited about in Congress these days, but the reintroduction of a bipartisan energy efficiency bill is welcome news. Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Rob Portman (R-OH) reintroduced their marquee energy efficiency bill, the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act, with the addition of ten bipartisan amendments and ten new sponsors (five Republicans and five Democrats) in an effort to demonstrate broad support and garner the 60 votes necessary to pass anything.

With the addition of specific provisions aimed at improving energy efficiency in residential and commercial buildings, schools and federal buildings located in communities, among others, NLC is pleased to offer our support. NLC urges Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to bring the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act up to the Senate floor for consideration, and we urge all senators to support the bill.

The building sector accounts for 39 percent of the nation’s energy use, 72 percent of its electricity use, one third of all global greenhouse gas emissions and represents the single largest, most accessible opportunity for deep emissions cuts in the United States. Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is the most cost-effective way to achieve reduction goals; it will save homeowners and businesses money by reducing utility bills and create thousands of local jobs.

With regard to homes, the average homeowner spends more than $2,500 each year on energy costs – more than on either real estate taxes or homeowners insurance, both of which are regularly accounted for in mortgage underwriting. On average, these energy costs amount to more than $70,000 over the life of a 30-year mortgage. That’s why NLC is particularly pleased that the reintroduced bill includes the Sensible Accounting to Value Energy (SAVE) Act, sponsored by Sens. Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Johnny Isakson (R-GA). This provision will provide lenders and homeowners with more flexible federal mortgage underwriting rules that would include a home’s expected energy cost savings when determining the value and affordability of the home. The SAVE Act will address the blind spot in mortgage lending, giving a more complete picture of the costs of homeownership and a borrower’s capacity to service debt. Over time, the bill will drive growth in energy efficient home construction and energy efficiency upgrades in existing homes.

This energy efficiency bill is critical to helping cities meet their overall sustainability goals, including the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. It is a positive example of bipartisanship that will have a tremendous impact on cities and ripple effect throughout the economy. But first, cities need Congress to act.

Without getting too much into the messy details, the fact is the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act was on the Senate floor last September but fell victim to the amendment debate and the need to focus on debit and appropriations issues. While Sens. Shaheen and Portman believe they now have the votes, the Majority Leader has not yet made a commitment to bring it back to the Senate floor for a vote and non-germane amendments could once again be an issue. But let’s savor the bipartisan effort for now and work toward a positive outcome.

When you are in DC next week for the NLC Congressional City Conference, please tell your senators that you support the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill, ask them to ask Sen. Reid to bring it up to the floor for a vote, and ask them to support the bill.

NLC Joins “Rails-to-Trails” Supreme Court Brief

Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Perhaps your city is fortunate and has extensive biking and recreational trails.  If so, have you ever wondered, where do bike paths come from? Many bike paths in the country come from abandoned railroad land grants or right-of-way grants and have been converted from “Rails-to-Trails.”  Who is often responsible for converting and maintaining these trails?  Cities, of course!

Depending on how the Supreme Court rules, future trails could be in jeopardy.

In Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States the Court will decide who owns an abandoned federally granted railroad right-of-way:  the United States or the land owner whose property the right-of-way runs through.  The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case supporting the United States. NLC has signed onto the brief.

In 1908, the United States granted the Laramie, Hahn’s Peak and Pacific Railroad Company a right-of-way to build a railroad over public land pursuant to the General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875.  In 1976, the predecessor to the Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust bought land in Wyoming surrounding part of this railroad right-of-way.  In 2004, the railroad abandoned the right-of-way.  The Trust argued that it owns the abandoned right-of-way.  The Tenth Circuit disagreed. concluding that a number of federal statutes provide that the United States retains a “reversionary interest” in General Railroad Right of Way Act of 1875 rights-of-way.

If the Supreme Court agrees with the Tenth Circuit, state and local governments will benefit.  A federal statute, if applicable, grants the United States title to abandoned railroad rights-of-way unless a “public highway” is established on the right-of-way within one year of abandonment.  Public highways include recreational trails.

The SLLC amicus brief argues that state and local governments have long relied on the federal statutes relevant to this case to build public highways in abandoned railroad rights-of-way.

The National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of Counties, the International City/County Management Association, the International Municipal Lawyers Association, and the American Planning Association also signed onto the SLLC’s brief.

Oral argument has been scheduled for January 14.  The Supreme Court will issue an opinion in this case by June 30, 2014.

Cities lead, but cannot go it alone

An extended conversation with NLC President Chris Coleman. Listen to an abbreviated podcast of this interview on NLC’s Sound Cloud account.

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As the end of the year approaches, top 100 lists, year-in-reviews and “person of the year” recognitions are beginning to make their rounds. What are the year’s biggest themes in politics, culture and entertainment? How about for cities? Despite some notable challenges in cities across the country, 2013 has been a year marked by a gradually improving economy, improving city fiscal conditions and a sense that people are “rediscovering” cities and all they have to offer.

I was pleased to recently have a conversation about these themes with NLC President Chris Coleman, mayor, St. Paul, Minnesota. His experience as a mayor during some of the country’s most challenging times provides a unique perspective on the state and future of American cities. Below is the discussion we had on December 13, 2013.

As we’ve recently highlighted in our 10 Critical Imperatives Facing Cities report, cities are facing challenges – many of which are nationwide issues. In your perspective, what should be the role of cities in tackling some of our country’s toughest challenges, such as access to higher education, immigration and aging infrastructure?

Cities don’t have the luxury of not tackling every issue, because every issue is going to affect their community. So whether or not they’re the primary lead on an issue such as higher education or even primary education, cities have to play a role. We have to get our kids ready for college, we have to make sure they’re successful in kindergarten through 12th grade and we have to understand the relationship between what’s happening in the classroom and what’s happening in the rest of the community. Whether you’re a mayor who has mayoral control over the school district or a mayor, such as me, who plays a significant role in the education process – that’s a critical issue evolving even more as an essential role of the city than it historically has been.

Cities don’t have the luxury of not tackling every issue, because every issue is going to affect their community.

But for instance, you can say veterans issues are a federal issue, but the veterans are living in our communities – and too often they are living on our streets. Fiscal stability – obviously we are primarily in charge of our own destiny, but many of our resources are dependent on state and federal resources that are beyond our direct control. Every community is going to have a little different set of priorities within these 10 critical imperatives we’ve described, and may have some things that were not necessarily  identified as a top 10 issue. And there are going to be issues that may be best served by the federal government or the state government or the county government – but regardless of the issue, cities have a stake and an important role to play in creating solutions.

In our work at NLC, we’ve witnessed the powerful role of the mayor to act as a convener or an agenda setter. In these roles, are mayors able to push forward these “national” or “state” issues at the local level?

The strongest power we have is to set the table. When you do that and bring the right people into the room, solutions can be found to our challenges. I liken how we approach education to how we approach emergency management, which is no one department has to do everything or no one person has to do everything but when you’re in a room and you have a situation within your community, you say, ‘Okay fire chief, can you bring resources to bear over here?’ You’ll ask your police obviously to have their deployment set and you also ask your parks department what role they can play. You ask your public works department, ‘I need 5 trucks to block off this intersection,’ – or whatever it is.

In education, I view what we’re doing as convening an emergency operation center for our children. So we have the Mayor’s Education Leadership Team (MELT) in St. Paul, which has the superintendent, county board members, school board members, city councilmembers, service providers and philanthropic partners to say, ‘Okay, what do we need to do, is this covered, who knows about this issue?’ When you bring people together and do it in a way to direct it toward finding solutions – you can find those solutions.

We’ve increasingly seen city leadership recognized on issues such as education and veteran homelessness in the media. But at the same time, we see stories about bankruptcy, urban poverty and violence dominating news headlines. In your experience as mayor and as an NLC officer, how are cities faring in the current political and economic environment?

I’ve been mayor for eight years, about to go into my third term. In a lot of ways I’ve presided over some of the worst times, certainly economically, over these last eight years, which have been very difficult for the country and for our cities. I’ve also been fortunate to be mayor at a time when people are really rediscovering cities and deciding you know what, ‘I don’t want to live in an isolated enclave somewhere, I want to live where there is access to transportation, I want to live where I can walk to a restaurant, I want to live where it’s a five-minute commute to work rather than a two-hour commute.’ The vibrancy that cities provide, all the options – what used to be considered annoying challenges are now exciting opportunities.

Even in the midst of one of our most troubled cities we see some real hope and opportunity.

So I think there are struggles no doubt – you see the fiscal condition of Detroit – but also if you go to Detroit you see the regrowth of the core of downtown. Even in the midst of one of our most troubled cities we see some real hope and opportunity. I think one of the real challenges we’re going to face though, is to make sure that hope and opportunity is for all. We have to make sure those opportunities are available and those pathways are open for all.

What steps can cities take to create those  opportunities to make their communities more vibrant?

What I think is interesting is that while cities are all different, there are some common threads that we can use to all learn from each other. We’ve started competing in a positive way to be the greenest city, or smartest city, or to be the most technically savvy, connected city. St. Paul was designated – our 55101 zip code – the center of the hipster universe. And I think that’s a good thing. So other cities are asking, ‘Why does St. Paul have the hippest zip code in the country – and why don’t we?’ Cities are competing for talent from across the globe – so how do we attract 20-somethings that are coming out of the best colleges and universities that have enormous sets of skills. How do we make sure we have a welcoming place for them?

I look at Denver, I look at Salt Lake City, I look at cities that are doing massive investments in transportation and think, we have got to move faster on this one because this is what people are looking for when making decisions on where to live. We still have some huge challenges but I think that the renewed energy and vitality of cities across the country is truly amazing and provides city leaders with great new opportunities to make their cities better.

As you look at the challenges and opportunities that face cities, in your year as NLC President, what are some of the things you would like to accomplish?

There are a few things.  First of all, just from the education piece – I came to the National League of Cities through the Institute for Youth, Education and Families – that’s how I did a real deep dive into the organization. They gave us technical assistance in building out an out-of-school time network we call “Sprockets” that provides continued learning opportunities for children during afterschool, weekends, and summer. Those are the technical skills and activities we can help cities develop at NLC. NLC is also working on a new partnership with the Department of Education to really look at some early learning and college readiness pathways for cities. That, I think, is really exciting. So I want to make sure we solidify NLC’s role in supporting cities in their education efforts.

Another important issue is resilient cities, given the already dramatic changes we’ve seen with severe weather events and the impacts of climate change. We saw all this in Northern Colorado, in Boulder and some of the other cities around Boulder that sustained some tremendous damage as a result of the heaviest rainfalls they’ve ever seen. If that was an isolated incident perhaps you’d say, ‘Well these things happen.’ But when you see these things happen time after time after time again – the Tornado in Joplin, Missouri that Mayor Melodee Colbert Kean faced in 2011, the effects of Hurricane Sandy – you can go across the country and see reports of these extreme weather circumstances happening if not every day, then every week.

I don’t think any of us recognized or realized how quickly the impacts of climate change were going to start affecting our cities.

So we’re going to have to figure out two things: first of all, how do we help our cities meet some emission reduction targets? The Obama Administration has been helpful in providing some energy efficient block grants and some other tools that we have used to green our buildings to reduce our energy consumption – those things we’re going to have to continue. But we’re also starting to understand that cities are going to have to figure out: ‘Do we have capacity in our sewer systems to handle what used to be 500 year floods that are now happening every 7-10 years? Do we have capacity to respond to gigantic straight line winds, tornadoes, or any number of things?

When I first came into office, the grave concern we were looking at was a pandemic. That is still a real possibility and we are set up to respond to that, but I don’t think any of us recognized or realized how quickly the impacts of climate change were going to start affecting our cities. We, as the National League of Cities really have to be a leader in that conversation, both on the reduction and the response side of it.

You recently testified on the importance of federal investment in transportation, touching on how you’ve benefited from being mayor of a city where all partners “rolled up their sleeves and got to work on building the infrastructure of a strong city and region.”  What type of support do cities and their partners need from the federal government to make their communities better?

First of all, city leaders have to understand what the real threats to their community are – and the real threats are not the next town over or upstate or downstate. The threats that we face in terms of the future vitality of U.S. cities are cities across the globe that are growing rapidly, where they are attracting talent from across the world. The overwhelming evidence is that people coming out of college or universities right now are saying, ‘I’m going to pick where I want to live first and then what am I going to do.

And so whether you’re a city of 50,000 or a city of a couple million, you have to figure out what are you going to do to make your community attractive to folks who have a lot of options. Even before I was mayor, I looked at Austin, Texas and their success. They had a lot of pieces that we had in the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. But they also had a thriving cultural scene – there was a “there” there. Look at Nashville right now – Nashville is going gangbusters.

It’s not because they don’t have challenges. Mayor Dean and Councilmember Steine in Nashville are doing incredible work on the education front and they’ve been a model for a lot of the stuff we’re doing. But they have a city that is becoming a huge draw for people across the country, if not the globe. So my advice to cities is to identify the three or four things they’re going to do and do them well to position themselves in  a 21st century economy, then look to others to support that.

The problem is that too many people in Washington see cities as here with an open hand saying give us money, without a true understanding that as our cities go, so goes our country.

The reason I was testifying on the New Starts program, the reason why that was so important was because I’ve seen firsthand the impact of an investment in transportation in the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis – we’re six months out before the Central Corridor light rail line carries its first fare-paying passenger, and yet we’ve already seen $1.2 billion worth of investment. We have 7,500 units of housing underway or in planning along that line. We’ve seen businesses along University Avenue, where the line runs, that have been there for years, now reinvesting in their businesses and cleaning them up and preparing for the influx of customers.

So an area that has been subject to disinvestment since the freeway went through in the mid-60s is now the epicenter of investment in the Twin Cities. And so if you have the partnership with the federal government to support some of those things, then our cities will be vibrant. The problem is that too many people in Washington see cities as here with an open hand saying give us money, without a true understanding that as our cities go so goes our country. And if they understood that then they would be more willing to invest in our communities.

It seems vital to have a feedback loop to the policymakers in Washington because the leaders in our cities understand their communities best – they understand the threats, the challenges, and the opportunities. As you mentioned, we have seen how previous infrastructure projects have led to disinvestment– but you’re doing it differently. Your city is getting community input and the federal government is supporting that process.

A couple things happened in the construction of the Central Corridor, what is now called the Green Line. We were able to change the dynamic from D.C. saying here is how you’re going to build your line, to DC saying what do you need to make the line successful? That was a fundamental shift. The community fought for three additional stops that would serve the most transit dependent members along the line. It wasn’t until former Transportation Secretary LaHood and the Obama Administration said, oh this doesn’t make sense – it makes sense from a Washington perspective – but I understand now how it doesn’t make sense from a St Paul perspective so let’s make a change there.

The value of this investment isn’t just how quickly you can move people through an area – it’s how you can get people to invest in an area. That’s the critical piece.

The New Starts criteria that says were not going to just look at pure numbers and how fast you can move people from point A to point B, we’re going to ask how does this help green development, how does this help create economic opportunities, how does this help serve poor and disenfranchised communities. We still need a line that moves people from point A to point B and do it in an efficient time frame, but when you understand the value of this investment isn’t just how quickly you can move people through an area – it’s how you can get people to invest in an area. That’s the critical piece.

Bruce Katz has notably argued that we will increasingly see cities leading what he calls a “metropolitan revolution.” What are your thoughts on the future of cities? And what do you envision NLC’s role in helping to create that vision?

Bruce Katz and the folks at the Brookings Institution have done an amazing job of capturing in some ways and spearheading in others the kind of new look at cities – understanding that more than 75 percent of our nation’s economic output is coming out of cities, 80 percent of people are living in cities. That these global centers are not going through the federal government, but past the federal government to do direct city to city exchange.

It is a revolution and it’s a revolution mainly because it seems like we are going back to century old city states where the cities were the power. I don’t think that’s a great model in the sense that I hope Washington, D.C. will continue to make themselves relevant – but if they’re not going to make themselves relevant then cities aren’t going to stop moving forward.

This is one of the most interesting times in decades if not centuries for cities. What is happening here and understanding why cities existed in the first place, and why they matter, is really coming to the forefront as federal governments are becoming more and more stagnated. The creativity that occurs because three people are sitting at a coffee shop exchanging ideas, and how we exchange ideas with technology – there’s such an amazing revolution in terms of how people are reacting and exchanging ideas and creating things at a speed that we haven’t seen before. It’s an exciting time for cities. And I think NLC will be in the thick of it.

Government Shutdown Puts America’s Waterways in Jeopardy

It’s now day two of the federal government shutdown, and many city leaders and residents are still wondering what the impact will be on their communities. Certainly, the shuttering of national parks throughout the country as well as the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo here in Washington, DC (not to mention the Panda Cam!) is grabbing a lot of headlines. But what about environmental programs that cities rely on for necessities such as clean water?

Today, Speaker Boehner announced a plan to pass three separate bills to reopen parts of the government, including the national parks (happy belated birthday, Yosemite!), but Senate Democrats and the White House quickly dismissed the proposal. Later in the day, the House passed all three bills.

Where does that leave us? Back at square one with no end in sight. The reality is that as controversial as some of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulatory actions may be, there are some Members of Congress that are in no rush to get Agency back up and running.

The federal government shutdown means that there is no new money for the EPA Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Fund (SRF) programs, which help communities obtain low-cost financing to improve the nation’s aging water infrastructure. The federal government provides grants to each state to capitalize their revolving loan funds, with the states matching 20 percent of the federal capitalization grants. States then use the funds to provide financial assistance to cities and counties to rehabilitate or build new wastewater or drinking water treatment plants, implement stormwater protection projects, and keep pollutants out of our nation’s water supply. These are just some of the types of water quality improvement projects that the SRF programs can fund.

And while 46 of the 50 states operate their own National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permitting programs, four states – Idaho, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and the District of Columbia rely on EPA to issue permits for a variety of water pollution discharges that, if not regulated, will negatively impact the health of our nation’s waterways. Of course, the shutdown is not a permission slip for unregulated or unpermitted discharges, but it means that projects cannot move forward.

What are the numbers?

In the behemoth buildings that comprise the EPA Headquarters Office, located across the street from NLC, only 450 of the 8,503 employees are deemed essential and are able to work during the shutdown. Additionally, each of the Agency’s 10 Regional Offices are operating with a skeleton staff ranging from 20 in Regions 9 (San Francisco) and 10 (Seattle) to 57 in Region 3 (Philadelphia).

Protecting human health and the environment cannot be accomplished with only 3.85 percent of EPA staff working during the shutdown. Congress needs to pass a clean continuing resolution to reopen the federal government and allow these vital programs to continue to operate.

Please contact your Representative today by phone, email or even twitter, and let them know that you support the passage of a clean continuing resolution for fiscal year 2014. Cities can’t afford this sideshow.

Carolyn Berndt

About the author: Carolyn Berndt is the Principal Associate for Infrastructure and Sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. She leads NLC’s advocacy, regulatory, and policy efforts on energy and environmental issues, including water infrastructure and financing, air and water quality, climate change, and energy efficiency. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.

STAR Communities Announces 2014 Leadership Program & Financial Assistance

This post was written by Lacey Shaver, Outreach and Program Coordinator, STAR Communities.

For the past 10 months, more than 30 cities and counties from across the U.S. and Canada have been tracking their sustainability progress through participation in the STAR Community Rating System’s (STAR) pilot program. Working through the rating system with other communities helped participants reflect on their existing programs and learn from one another.

Dylan Siegler, Sustainability Manager at the City of Austin Office of Sustainability says, “STAR allows us to fairly evaluate Austin’s strengths as well as understand our challenges. At the same time, STAR [Communities] will provide the resources to learn from peer cities across North America about their successful sustainability programs and strategies.”

Pacific Northwest meeting of STAR pilot community leaders.

Pacific Northwest meeting of STAR pilot community leaders.

The STAR Pilot Communities hail from all over the country, from small towns to large cities, and the ways that they tackle sustainability issues within their communities are as varied as their sizes and locations. STAR provided a much-needed vocabulary for the pilot communities to more effectively strategize and define local sustainability planning efforts. Its goals and objectives presented a vision of how their communities could become more healthy, inclusive, and prosperous across seven specific categories encompassing the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainability.

Several pilot communities, including Washington, DC, Lee County, FL, and Tucson, AZ, integrated STAR into newly drafted sustainability plans.

“The District of Columbia used the STAR Community Rating System to help create metrics for our new sustainability    plan, Sustainable DC. Measuring the progress of a long-term sustainability initiative is an enormous challenge, so in addition to tracking progress of our plan’s individual actions, the District plans to use STAR as a way to measure the level of sustainability for the District as a whole. Having the ability to benchmark against other cities over time will be invaluable in determining our success and leadership nationally. Before STAR, this would just not have been possible,” explains Dan Guilbeault, Policy Analyst at the District Department of the Environment.

As the pilot program wraps up, and the pilot communities begin to submit their data for certification, STAR Communities is now looking to the future and to the next group of leadership communities. Based on the success of and the lessons learned from the pilot program, STAR Communities is pleased to announce the opportunity for all U.S. cities and counties to measure progress towards community sustainability through participation in the 2014 Leadership STAR Community Program.

With extensive support from STAR Communities staff, the selected  Leadership STAR Communities will work through the STAR Community Rating System together with the goal of becoming certified sustainable communities. Local governments that achieve a certified STAR Community Rating are recognized as leaders in sustainability and gain a deep understanding of their community’s strengths and needs to support current and future generations.

Through the one-year Leadership Program, communities will receive tools to measure progress towards a common set of sustainability metrics, access to STAR’s online platform to track the community’s sustainability data, opportunities to learn best practice from other communities, and assistance in sustainability messaging and storytelling.

In partnership with the Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, STAR Communities will offer financial assistance to a limited number of communities that demonstrate need and the ability to leverage local philanthropic support for their participation in the Leadership STAR Community Program. The full program application and guidelines for financial assistance are available at www.STARcommunities.org. The deadline for submission is Tuesday, October 15, 2013.

Since its inception, the National League of Cities (NLC) has been a core partner of the STAR Community Rating System. NLC and STAR Communities are both dedicated to improving America’s cities and mutually reinforce each other’s missions.

Seattle Leads by Example with Green Buildings

Most of us are familiar with the popular Earth Day catch phrase, “Make Earth Day Every Day.”  While we might not always live up to this ideal, I try to keep this quote from Denis Hayes, founder of the Earth Day Network and president of Seattle’s Bullitt Foundation, in mind when I need a little extra motivation to be a better environmentalist: “Listen up, you couch potatoes: each recycled beer can saves enough electricity to run a television for three hours.” If there ever was inspiration to imbibe, that’s it.

NLC celebrated Earth Day and Earth Month this year by hosting a four-part “Spotlight on Sustainability” webinar series that profiled the sustainability programs of large and small cities across the country. The series started in the coastal community of Miami Beach, Fla., then hit the Midwest with a stop in Falcon Heights, Minn. The third presentation came from the southwest via Flagstaff, Ariz. Finally, the series was capped by a timely presentation from Seattle, Wash. on their green building program.

Seattle has a robust Green Building program that facilitates green building policies and programs in both municipal operations and the private market.  The city is a national leader in the development of standard practices for green buildings, and has chosen to lead by example by ensuring that, to the extent possible, new construction and retrofits/redevelopment of public buildings are green.

Over the last decade, almost 30 of Seattle’s public buildings have been certified LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) silver or gold. These LEED gold buildings are 15% beyond code in energy reduction, 30% beyond code in water reduction and have a 90% waste diversion rate.

Seattle doesn’t just talk the green talk, they walk the green walk and in doing so have shown the private market that the benefits of green buildings, such as increasing a project’s market value, lowering operating costs over the life of a building and providing businesses with a healthier and more productive work environment, outweigh the initial higher costs that these buildings can entail.

In addition to being a leader in green building, Seattle has numerous city-led sustainability initiatives, ranging from green infrastructure, energy efficiency, urban agriculture and urban forest restoration. The city is also home to countless groups and organizations focused on sustainability and environmental protection, the Bullitt Foundation being a prime example.

We’re excited to be holding our annual conference, the Congress of Cities, in Seattle this November.  The Congress of Cities brings together over 2,000 local leaders from cities across the U.S. Model sustainability practices from Seattle as well as other cities will be a key component of the program. Join us in the Emerald City from November 13-16 for learning and networking opportunities highlighting successful city programs and initiatives from communities across the country!

Leading City Issues of 2012: Snapshot from CitiesSpeak.org

Jobs and the economy, sustainability, government performance, youth violence prevention, community design, and, wouldn’t you know it, beer, emerged as leading city themes of 2012.  We surveyed the most read posts of the year from NLC’s CitiesSpeak.org blog to get a snapshot of the top local issues on the minds of readers. In order of most viewed content:

  • Cities Court Craft Breweries
    Craft breweries have caught the eyes of local officials and economic developers and they are encouraging the development, growth, and attraction of these companies.   Beer photo
  • “New Urbanism”: What Does it Mean to City Leaders?
    The term new urbanism brings about visions of the constructed reality of Truman Burbank—played by actor Jim Carey in the 1998 Hollywood movie, The Truman Show.  The movie depicts Burbank’s fabricated made-for-TV life in his made-for-TV small town and was filmed on location in Seaside, Florida.
  • Economic Benefits of Green Cities
    From energy efficient strategies for buildings to increasing opportunities for recreation and tourism, cities are taking action and seeing returns on their sustainability investments.
  • Anything New in Economic Attraction?
    Business attraction has been and continues to be an essential part of economic development for many communities. In the context of difficult political, economic and fiscal realities, have economic attraction strategies changed?

In 2013, expect new content on a wide-range of issues, such as city fiscal conditions, business development, workforce development and post-secondary success, sustainable local food systems, municipal broadband, neighborhood revitalization, veterans housing, education, dropout recovery, afterschool learning opportunities, violence prevention, health and wellness, family financial stability, and local data initiatives.

Elevating the Principles of Net-Zero Buildings to Teach Us About Building Sustainable Communities

A few weeks ago, at the Greenbuild conference in San Francisco, I attended a session that featured NREL’s Research Support Facility (RSF) in Golden, CO. The session’s speakers described the design and construction process of the RSF, a net-zero energy building (NZEB) that today serves as a model for performance-based design.

The possibilities presented about achieving net-zero energy at scale were exciting: How do net-zero design strategies alter the discourse about how we design and build? Does NZEB necessitate a paradigm shift in the way we imagine and deliver buildings?

With my inner architecture geek fired up, I attended our own Congress of Cities Conference the following week. There, I had an opportunity to sit in on the Energy Efficiency workshop as Mayor Henrietta Davis of Cambridge, MA, along with Kurt Roth of Fraunhofer USA, presented the M.L.K School. This net-zero energy project, taken on by Cambridge Public Schools and the City of Cambridge in 2012, is to serve as a pilot project for achieving net-zero, specifically in schools.

“For Cambridge the process of planning and designing a net-zero school has changed the way we think about energy in all our buildings.  It has made us think about what energy we really need to use in our existing city buildings and will surely change some of what we do even in buildings not slated for full scale renovation or rebuilding.”

As Mayor Davis clearly states above, the process of planning for and designing net-zero buildings offers a new perspective on how we interact with and use energy in our communities.

Additionally, through the workshop sessions I realized that the focus on a life-cycle perspective (which the NZEB process elevates) offers principles applicable not only to energy efficiency in buildings, but also to the larger dialogue on taking sustainable communities to scale:

The Power of Integrated Design.  At the San Francisco Greenbuild session, speakers described the need to effectively integrate and coordinate the various building components and processes in order to achieve maximum energy efficiencies.  With NREL’s RSF, they spoke about the high level of coordination that took place between the various ‘designers’—the architect, engineer, contractor and operations/maintenance company—in order to ensure that energy efficiency was a prioritized goal (on par with scheduling and cost savings) throughout the process. Through open lines of communication, each ‘designer’ in the process ensured that their building component was as energy efficient as possible with relation to the various other components working in parallel.

Sustainable communities emerge from the thoughtful design and integration of the various components of a place.  While many of us are aware of this, do our planning practices actually encourage dialogue between the various ‘designers’ of the city—the architects, the transportation planners, the youth and the civic and faith-based organizers? Often, city planning is happenstance, pieces of communities clashing and colliding into places; and while there is beauty in the intersections that emerge, sustainable cities necessitate greater coordination and communication between these traditionally unlikely partners.  Create spaces that encourage open communication- the first step is to have everyone working together.

The Plug Load Problem.  In both sessions, the speakers used the example of plug loads—essentially the energy consumed by what you and I plug into a socket rather than the energy it takes to heat or light a room– to describe how much end users impact the overall building energy use.   To be able to achieve a NZEB, they emphasized 1) incorporating this variable into early energy modeling for the building and 2) creating an education process whereby end users (if known) understand the NZEB principles and the effects of their actions on overall building energy use.

Now this sounds quite simple, but how often do we forget that different communities are created for and occupied by different types of users?  While we may not ‘model’ a community like we do a building, we certainly envision outcomes early on.  So, in the design/visioning/ goal-setting process, the first step is identifying who the end users are (think: age, demographics, socioeconomic status) and how they already occupy spaces.  The second step is creating an educational component to the process so that “the users” understand the effects of their individual actions and are better equipped to make day-to-day decisions. Focus on the end user from the beginning—the key lies in the operation not just the planning.

The Passive Design Potential.  A critical component of designing a NZEB is incorporating passive design strategies—strategies that maximize the energy provided by natural systems as much as possible. Rather than defaulting to purchased energy, passive design creates a process whereby ambient sources of energy such as daylighting and natural ventilation are maximized. Both sets of speakers demonstrated that understanding the site and its “passive assets” was critical to minimizing the number of energy- consuming products that would make NZEB goals more difficult to achieve.

In the case of moving towards sustainable cities, how quickly do we assume that the ‘right’ answer in one place is the ‘right’ answer in another?  The fact is that each city has its own geographies, typologies, assets, and so forth. The strength of encouraging passive design strategies in net-zero building is that the excess addition of systems and components takes a second seat to the inherent assets of the site.

In the creation and implementation of a sustainability vision for a city, identifying those assets and qualities that already progress a city’s sustainability goals are not only low-hanging fruit, but often more successful in the long-term than imposing programs or policies that may not fit.  Build more with less-every community has untapped assets waiting to be utilized.

As NZEBs are still relatively recent in the sustainability conversation, I’m excited to see how building and energy rating systems develop and what lessons we continue to extract from the whole process!

Stay tuned and share your thoughts with us –comment below or email us at sustainability@nlc.org.