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Taking a Closer Look

Environmentally Sensitive Development

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Last year I attended a conference on environmentally sensitive development conducted by the National Association of Home Builders. Most of the speakers were developers interested in building more compact, mixed use, pedestrian friendly communities. Almost to a person the builders complained about the inflexibility of local subdivision standards, particularly excessive residential street standards.

As one builder put it, “the typical code requires us to build roads wide enough to land a 747 on.” Or as another builder explained, “too wide streets encourage speeding and are unattractive.” Over-designed roads are also expensive. According to one expert, “over wide streets can add up to $9,000 to the cost of a house.”

Sitting next to me throughout the conference was a representative of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a regional environmental organization devoted to restoring the health of the Chesapeake Bay. After the first complaint from a builder about residential road standards he turned to me and said, “I completely agree with him.” An environmentalist and a developer in complete agreement. This would come as a shock to many people, but the environmentalist quietly explained that less pavement meant less run-off, less sedimentation, and less non-point source pollution. This in turn meant a healthier Chesapeake Bay.

We often hear people say that a healthy economy and healthy environment go hand and hand and yet innovative developers who would protect the environment are often stymied by inflexible regulations. Ironically, when an environmentally sensitive design varies from the letter of the law, developers must often spend time and money arguing for their plan. When the cost and delay are too great, the “by-the-book” project will prevail over innovation, even if it hurts the environment….

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photo of Ed McMahonEd McMahon is one of the country’s most incisive analysts of planning and land use issues and trends. He holds the Charles Fraser Chair on Sustainable Development and is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, DC. McMahon is a frequent speaker at conferences on planning and land development.

Over the past 21 years, we’ve been pleased to have published more than two dozen articles by McMahon in the Planning Commissioners Journal, and now on

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