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LEED is the new building standard, say developers at Cornell conference

About a year and a half ago, the market began demanding more green buildings, said a private developer in a panel discussion on the intersection of development and sustainability Nov. 7 at the Cornell Law School.

The discussion was part of a two-day "Defining Sustainable Development" conference on land use, climate change and water resources.

Panelist Paul Morris, vice president for sustainable planning and development at the investment company Cherokee, described how his firm partners with communities in North America, Western Europe and Asia to clean contaminated property for safe and productive use.

Sustainability requires "advances in any project that we do from an economic, environmental and social justice and equity perspective," said Morris, who stressed the importance of both economic and environmental success in his company's projects.

When Cherokee gets involved in a project to reclaim contaminated land and build new structures, they make sure future owners agree to abide by sustainable standards themselves, he said.

Land use: What is a property owner's social obligation?

By Liz Leaderman

Professors Eduardo Peñalver and Gregory Alexander of Cornell Law School explored the unique problems posed by land use in the Nov. 8 discussion "Ethics, Economics and Land." The panel, part of the Law School's "Defining Sustainable Development" conference, was moderated by law professor Robert Hockett.

"Existing land uses take root," Peñalver explained, and they have a lasting impact that other policy choices do not. This is problematic because decisions about how to use land are frequently made without considering social harms such as the destruction of wetlands or inadequate allocation of affordable housing. Courts do not force private landowners to consider the impact of their land-use decisions on the surrounding community, so owners are, for the most part, left to make decisions that maximize only their own wealth, Peñalver said.

However, well-crafted environmental regulations could clarify the social obligations of private landowners, Peñalver said. These types of regulations would stop property owners from profiting at the expense of their neighbors' well-being. And given the lasting impact of land use, stricter regulations would train future generations to use land more sustainably.

Alexander expanded on the idea of social obligation. He acknowledged that property owners have unique rights, but asserted that they also have social obligations that limit those rights. In addition, he discussed the role of courts in deciding what constitutes property rights and obligations.

Peñalver and Alexander's approaches to land-use problems have political, philosophical and legal underpinnings, but the professors put forth a simple idea: that the current economic measures of land value do not accurately reflect the land's social and environmental value. To address this problem, courts and regulators must consider landowners' social obligations, they said.

Liz Leaderman is a Cornell Law School student.

Furthermore, as proof of principle that well-designed and managed green buildings can be cost effective, Cherokee renovated two historic buildings in Raleigh, N.C., according to platinum LEED standards (the highest rating under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System) at an affordable cost and made its headquarters there.

Panelist Michael Deane, vice president and chief sustainability officer at Turner Construction, one of the largest general builder in the country, said that in the last three years, around 20 percent of the company's contracts have been for green buildings and that buildings representing $1.8 billion of last year's contracts will eventually be LEED certified.

"More and more in different parts of the country LEED is mandated by law," he said. "LEED is the new definition of class A [building]." Al Gore's climate change documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth" combined with growing awareness have led to the growth of LEED-certified buildings, Deane said. As a result of the increased demand, the investment community was forced to start backing such green projects.

"Government has plenty of power" to regulate sustainability practices, said panelist Richard Booth, Cornell professor of city and regional planning, but it lacks the political will to move forward aggressively, especially when it comes to land use. The federal government has handed land use regulation to state and local governments, and state governments "delegate most of their land use authority to local governments," he said. He added that many local governments, in turn, choose not to act. "The answer in the long run is we need to combine regulations with [economic] incentives," he said.

Jack Elliott, Cornell associate professor of design and environmental analysis, asked conference organizers to turn off their lights and raise their window shades to save energy and reduce their ecological footprint. He pointed out that he walks to work, buys carbon offsets when he flies, wears organic clothes and buys local foods. For development practices to be truly regenerative, "we have to go beyond an anthropocentric understanding of development ... where both natural ecosystems and our artificial ecosystems, the ones that we generate, work in concert."

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Krishna Ramanujan