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Hubbell is going ‘green’

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Hubbell Realty Co. President and CEO Rick Tollakson tells a good story on himself as he recalls his initial skepticism about the “green” community development concept the company will bring to three Central Iowa cities this spring.

“I thought, this isn’t going to work. It isn’t a good idea. Why would anyone go through the brain damage of making it happen?” Tollakson recalled thinking last winter after he had been invited to present a traditional developer’s point of view at a conference on the concept sponsored by Growing Green Communities, a non-profit group formed by the Metro Waste Authority to promote stewardship in watersheds and raise awareness of water-quality issues in urban environments.

Green communities – or conservation communities, low-impact developments and smart-growth developments, as they’re also known – leave woodlands, stream buffers and other natural features intact and build houses in closely knit clusters to allow for large public vistas that are planted to a showy display of blooming native prairie species, whose deep root systems absorb storm runoff like a giant sponge, eliminating the need for elaborate storm sewer systems. The principle has been successfully applied in Wisconsin and Chicago, but is new to Iowa.

Tollakson had myriad concerns about the green concept, ranging from the profitability of a development that required up to half of the land be dedicated to open space to the likely response by buyers whose moves to the suburbs have been predicated on their desire for houses with large lots. And even if those hurdles could be overcome, Tollakson feared the concept would get a chilly reception from local governmental officials, who historically have held subdivision developers to city standards on street width and other infrastructures.

“It requires cities to do things cities don’t like to do, like putting houses closer together, putting in narrower streets, eliminating sidewalks in some cases and changing how engineers look at stormwater drainage – get it off quickly and let somebody else worry about it,” Tollakson said.

By the end of the two-day conference, though, he was a convert. His about-face came in part after another presenter, a developer from Wisconsin who has built several conservation communities, confessed his initial opposition to the concept. Tollakson recalled him saying, “As you listen to Rick talk, I was more opposed to the concept than he was, but I went through the numbers, have done it and it has been great for me; the buying public has embraced it.”

As Tollakson turned the concept over in his mind, it gained appeal. He sought the advice of architects and engineers, reflected on statistics that show up to 80 percent of golf course community residents live there not because they like to play golf but because they feature expanses of green space, and then “ran it up the flagpole” with city officials from Grimes, Waukee and Carlisle, where Hubbell had developments planned. “I was surprised,” Tollakson said. “Not only were their staffs favorable to the concepts – they understood they would have to make trade-offs – but they looked at the whole concept favorably overall.

“Maybe I’m a closet environmentalist,” Tollakson said, joking that developers sometimes are viewed as eco-villains. “But I got the feeling there was a momentum building, that people are more concerned about the environment, that they want more and they don’t mind being side-by-side with their neighbors if they have more than a stack of firewood to look out on. It gives you a feeling of much more open space, it’s aesthetically pleasing and that you’re helping things by restoring native prairie grass. I got the feeling I wasn’t alone, and there was a market out there.”

Grading will begin this spring on three Hubbell conservation community development communities: the 95-acre Danamere Farms development in Carlisle, which dedicates 41.5 acres to open spaces; the 111.5-acre Meadowlark South development in Grimes, which dedicates 39.3 acres to open spaces; and the 284.5-acre Glynn Village in Waukee, which dedicates 134.2 acres to open spaces. All are single-family developments with the exception of Danamere Farms, which will have two commercial plats. Townhomes are planned there and at Meadowlark South.

FOCUS ON BELTWAY

The Carlisle development in particular fits one of the goals of Growing Green Communities: to encourage environmental stewardship along the U.S. Highway 65/Iowa Highway 5 corridor as the area develops.

The Metro Waste Authority group was originally formed as Watershed University and had cleaning up the Des Moines River and neighborhoods draining into it as its goals, with particular emphasis placed on stopping the illegal dumping of hazardous wastes. The group’s board had representatives from 17 member communities, and the focus expanded beyond the groundwater protection issues generally associated with landfill management to include a plethora of concerns related to watershed management and water quality. The collaborations between member governments were already strong, and the non-profit Growing Green Communities was formed last year.

Funded by a Resource Enhancement and Protection grant from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the group last fall began meeting with government representatives from communities adjacent to Highways 65 and 5 – Carlisle, where Hubbell’s conservation community will be built, as well as Altoona, Pleasant Hill, Carlisle, Norwalk, Des Moines and Polk and Warren counties.

“We’re trying to get them aware there might be a better way to do this, to improve the environment and the aesthetics,” said Tom Hadden, executive director of Metro Waste Authority and chairman of Growing Green Communities. “Development is good, but in the way we develop, we have to bring awareness from the past.”

Cities have some incentive to embrace green development. It used to be that excess water was channeled to lakes, steams and rivers and little concern was given to the silt, contaminants and debris flowing with it because it was filtered through several feet of soil. However, metropolitan development booms have increased the amount of impervious surfaces, such as streets and sidewalks, parking lots and rooftops, and as a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to hand down more stringent municipal stormwater management rules.

“In response to flooding, the standards for on-site stormwater management are increasing concern of cities,” said Joe Pietruszynski, Hubbell’s development manager and formerly an urban planner who worked in Des Moines and Ames. “In the near future, cities are going to be subjected to higher standards on all development.

“What [green communities] will offer communities is a different way of developing subdivisions that meet or exceed those standards.”

While Hubbell is concentrating on residential developments that give residents a spectacular views of blooming wildflowers and other natural features, Growing Green Communities is talking with big-box retailers whose parking lots shed stormwater faster than storm-sewer systems can handle it. “We want Target, Wal-Mart and those facilities with big parking lots to break them up with natural drainage structures,” Hadden said. “It will make them look nicer, and it’s better for water quality.

Green sod doesn’t yield the same results, he said. “Our grass surfaces can’t absorb near the water as natural prairies and prairie grasses, which have root systems five, 15 and 20 feet down. There’s a big difference in the absorption capacity.”

The Growing Green Communities concept allows engineers to use the design techniques of today while incorporating natural systems in stormwater management plans, he said.

Hadden said Growing Green Communities will continue to work to develop more collaboration among the metro area’s local governments, conservation groups, developers and landowners. Its goals through 2008 include:

• Over the next three years, increase by 10 percent the number of residents and businesses looking at natural resource protection as an investment in their quality of life, using Metro Waste Authority’s residential survey to measure success.  • Over the next three years, increase awareness of issues surrounding illegal dumping, again using the residential survey to measure results.  • Make Greater Des Moines a recognized leader nationally in low-impact design principles, wise resource use, and resident and worker involvement in conservation.  • Increase participation in water-quality monitoring in Greater Des Moines with results measured by evidence of reduced sediment and nutrient runoff.  • Reduce sediment, nutrient and pesticide loading at Camp Creek by 10 percent by 2007.  • Reduce the cost of illegal dumping cleanup by 5 percent by 2006 in the Central Iowa region served by Metro Waste Authority.  • Besides Hadden, board members of Growing Green Communities are mark Ackelson of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, G. David Hurd of the Iowa Environmental Council, Tracy LeMar of Barker LeMar Environmental Engineering and Pat Boddy of the Polk County Conservation Board. Tina Mowry of Mowry Strategies Inc. is the project manager.

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