Some of the smartest, most innovative solutions for building thriving and sustainable communities in the Northwest are, at present, simply illegal.

Even the best-intended rules to protect people and shared assets can become outdated. From business strategies (think buggy whips and typewriter ribbons) to the stuff forgotten in the back of your fridge, almost everything has an expiration date. Luckily, weeding out the counterproductive rules rendered irrelevant by time can have a big impact—making it easier and cheaper to do the right thing.

Take the problem of the urban stormwater runoff that threatens the health of Puget Sound and other waterbodies throughout the Northwest. Low Impact Development (LID) solutions—including such strategies as rain gardens, street-side swales, porous pavement, and green roofs—can treat stormwater more effectively, and for less money, than the costly “hard” infrastructure of downspouts, pipes, and sewers. Yet many development codes mandate the more-expensive, less-effective plumbing solution. If only codes would allow LID as an alternative, the region could see a proliferation of lower-impact techniques that could spare government coffers in lean times, and give developers and homeowners a financial break—even while providing cleaner water and patches of urban habitat.

  • Other examples of sustainable practices hindered by outdated laws and codes abound. Look at current neighborhood design. Most zoning codes reflect an idealized 1950s in which nuclear families supposedly cloistered behind picket fences. But major shifts in demographics—singles delaying marriage and child-rearing; women having fewer children; aging baby boomers; and extended, close-knit immigrant families—all demand housing that fits a new set of needs. Those needs are far better met by compact neighborhood designs. Yet in most cities it’s not even legal to build new living units in backyard cottages or converted basements—the very kind of housing that supports non-traditional configurations, like families living with elderly grandparents, or renters for cash-strapped homeowners.

    These examples are just two of the multitude of ways that sustainable strategies are ruled out by current rules in the Northwest. There are dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of others. Many green building techniques such as recycling “gray water” are illegal. So are many sustainable, small-scale food-production techniques—think of Portland’s flourishing food carts, which are mostly banned in other Northwest cities. Car-pooling for money? Illegal. Renting out your car when you’re not using it? Illegal. Rain barrels? Actually illegal in many places, under state water law. Similarly, heat pumps that piggy back on city water mains could save enormous amounts of energy and money, but initial inquiries suggest they are illegal.

    In this new blog series, Making Sustainability Legal, Sightline will check the expiration dates on a slew of existing regulations, charting a path for new rules that allow sustainability to flourish across the region. We aim to single out counterproductive regulations rendered irrelevant by time and to present smarter solutions that fit today’s reality. If the Northwest can clear away this sort of debris, the region can grow into a region that’s more affordable, fair, and sustainable.

     

    Have your own affordable, green innovations—at home or at work—slammed into obstacles hidden in law, regulation, or other rules? Let us know! We need your help to catalog rules that are past their “sell by” date. Write to Eric (at) sightline.org.