When it comes to being sustainable, it's all about priorities

Given that Cleveland Heights is a built-out suburb with few opportunities for cutting-edge planned developments, I question the relative emphasis given to such developments in the proposed changes to the city's zoning codes.

While doing something sustainable with the Oakwood property makes sense, and while one day turning Severance into another Crocker Park could too, the changes ignore the fact that the city comprises mostly older homes that could be made markedly more sustainable with the right investments.

Among other things, the proposed changes do little to address the fact that too many of the city's residential properties are energy-inefficient and that too many of its residential properties produce unacceptable amounts of run-off.

With that being said, let's consider how some different zoning priorities could make us much more sustainable and, as a direct result, make us much more accountable to the seven billion people with whom we now share the planet.

Here is an easy-to-understand example that will put my concerns into stark relief:

Let's say that we consider an all-too-common scenario in Cleveland Heights in which the owner of a tired-looking residential property needs to improve it. The owner's single-family home is more than 50 years old and it still has its original windows and insulation levels. Similarly, its HVAC unit, water heater and major appliances are outmoded from an energy-efficiency point of view.   

Beyond those issues, let's also say the home's water management system is missing important elements as it lacks both rain barrels and a rain garden. Lastly, let's say that the owner has little money to spend on improvements.

Under the city's proposed code, there is nothing that would make the owner address the home's sustainable-living deficits before any of its other deficits. In fact, it's possible that the owner could consume most, if not all, of his/her small renovation budget while resolving less critically important problems.

Therefore, the owner's compliance with proposed code could work against the city's stated desire to become more sustainable in two important ways: 1) his/her compliance might not make the property more energy efficient; and 2) his/her compliance might not reduce the run-off from the property.

Under a more reasoned zoning code, however, the city could become more sustainable by emphasizing codes that reduce energy use and/or run-off. Under such a code, a homeowner with a relatively small renovation budget still might be able to afford priority projects costing between $500 and $5,000.

Examples of these key sustainability-enhancing renovation projects include: 1) replacing a home's original windows with energy-efficient vinyl windows; 2) increasing the insulation levels in a home's attic; 3) replacing a home's HVAC unit and water heater with high-efficiency alternatives; and 4) adding both rain barrels and a rain garden to a home's water management system.

In the short term, this approach to zoning better responds to the risks of home ownership at a time when worker wages have stagnated and home values, according to Karl Case (of S&P's Case-Schiller Housing Price Index), are not expected to reach a post-bubble bottom until sometime in 2014.

In the long term, this approach speaks to the kind of broad paradigm shift that must unfold as the world's population grows to nine billion by 2050, and the world's resource allocation problems become increasingly more acute.

In both the short and long term, it reflects the importance that Camiros Ltd. placed on rethinking public and private investments in the built environment.

Finally, the city could accelerate its progress along the sustainability curve by offering tax breaks to homeowners who make high priority updates now.

Doing so would bring about the city's essential transformation faster than would otherwise occur if it relied solely on its point-of-sale inspection process to identify, and then manage, sustainability-related zoning code violations.

Bill Cimino

Bill Cimino is a management consultant and a concerned citizen of the world around us.

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Volume 5, Issue 4, Posted 9:33 AM, 04.04.2012