Envision this: groups of home builders and environmentalists working hand-in-hand at the local level to protect open spaces and curb the harmful effects of growth on streams.

That’s the concept behind Builders for the Bay, a new program aimed at finding common ground among groups often at odds so that both will benefit — better stream quality for environmental concerns, and reduced costs and regulatory hurdles for developers.

“These are not folks who normally spend a lot of time together,” noted Bill Matuszeski, former director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office. “But I think it is ultimately going to be great because they are going to see the commonality of their interests.”

The program was launched by the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, the National Association of Home Builders, and the Center for Watershed Protection at the Dec. 3 Chesapeake Executive Council meeting.

It has its roots in the Chesapeake 2000 agreement, which called for preserving open space and reducing the rate of sprawl in the watershed.

At first, some of the commitments sparked concern among developers. To alleviate those worries, Matuszeski and former Alliance Executive Director Fran Flanigan met with the home builders association to see how to include developers in the effort.

At first, home builders envisioned an award program that would recognize environmentally sensitive development. But when they began looking at consensus-building processes in the Rappahannock Watershed and elsewhere aimed at bringing coalitions together to enact local-level changes, they began to see greater potential. [See “Rappahannock roundtables pave way for better design” on page 16].

“They realized they were not each others’ enemies; they wanted to do certain things together,” said Martin Poretsky, an official with the National Association of Home Builders who also chairs Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay Trust, and recently joined the Alliance’s board. “I thought, why can’t we do this elsewhere?”

The new program seeks to replicate that process throughout the watershed, targeting six communities in 2002, and six more the following year. Through initial successes, they hope the concept catches on and and begins spreading on its own through the watershed.

The goal is to spark regulatory changes at the local level. As was the case in the Rappahannock watershed, the problem with promoting new ideas such as cluster development, smaller parking lots and innovative stormwater management often isn’t in the development community, but with antiquated government regulations.

“It is hard to do dramatic change when there are so many silly rules; you have to put in curb and gutter, your streets have to be 34-feet wide, your cul-de-sacs have to be big enough to land a spaceship on, and so forth,” said Tom Schueler, director of the nonprofit Center for Watershed Protection. “Things are getting better, but we still have a ways to go.”

As in the Rappahannock, the Builders for the Bay will use the Center’s 22 Better Site Design principles as the focus for roundtables that involve environmentalists, builders, local officials, transportation agencies and others. They will review the principles — possibly modify them to meet local needs — and recommend local changes to help implement them.

For example, local regulations often require huge cul-de-sacs so fire engines and emergency vehicles have room to maneuver. But there are alternatives: Pavement can be reduced by a landscaped island in the middle of a cul-de-sac — or even turning the cul-de-sac into a loop road. Such tweaking of regulations can dramatically reduce the amount of impervious surfaces — and the amount of stormwater runoff that has to be treated.

Where Builders for the Bay will differ from the Rappahannock process is that, because of the up-front involvement of the National Association of Home Builders, local home builder groups should be more eager to take part in the roundtable process.

“If Builders for the Bay is working properly, we won’t have to spend time convincing the development community that they need to participate,” said Matuszeski, who is now an Alliance board member. “If the development community is on board at the outset, along with the environmental community — and those are two big ‘ifs’ — then we ought to be able to move the process of developing the local criteria further along.”

Coupled with the roundtables will be an awards program to recognize individuals, organizations and developers who promote change and for environmentally sound projects. “When the initial Builders for the Bay awards are given out, it will create a feeling¹in the building community of other builders wanting to do the same thing and to get on the bandwagon,” said Earl Armiger, a national vice president of the National Home Builders Association, and president of Orchard Development Corp. “Obviously, we’ve got to have examples where it makes economic sense, as well as environmental sense.”

As successful models — both for developments and for revamped ordinances — begin appearing on the landscape, it’s hoped that the number of communities participating in the process will accelerate.

That needs to happen if there is any hope in keeping pace with impacts of population growth and development expected in the watershed, said David Bancroft, executive director of the Alliance.

“A fundamental part of Builders for the Bay is a recognition that as we look into the next five, 10 or 20 years, there is going to continue to be residential and commercial development,” he said. “This is a way we can help minimize the impacts of that.”