Take Action: That's Who We R - Making Smart Growth Happen

REALTORS® take the lead and lead by example. In Austin, Texas, Santa Barbara, Calif., and Traverse City, Mich., REALTOR® associations are leading by example to address issues of sustainability and resiliency.

More and more, businesses and communities are focusing on the triple bottom line — often described as people, planet and profit. For the Austin Board of REALTORS® (ABoR), the Santa Barbara Association of REALTORS® (SBAOR), and the Traverse Area Association of REALTORS® (TAAR), improving the triple bottom line begins right at the office door.

Emily Chenevert, ABoR’s CEO, explains “Several years ago we focused on sustainability in our own building to lessen our carbon footprint and keep costs down by being more cost effective.”

ABoR installed a solar array that until only recently was the largest in the city. Its measures also included extensive stormwater management that keeps water onsite, which is important in a city where a sudden inundation of heavy rain can cause flash flooding. ABoR’s headquarters is a LEED Platinum building and a model for brokers and the community.

Water concerns and drought conditions are also an issue in Santa Barbara and the focus of SBAOR’s upgrades at its offices.

SBAOR CEO Bob Hart says people in Santa Barbara like the look of green grass. But that look comes at a hefty price to the environment and wallet. “Previously we had to frequently water our lawn and in California we’re always in a drought cycle. Then we decided to create a demonstration garden so people could see what could be done with drought-tolerant landscaping and drip irrigation. We received a water-hero award from the city and the garden has become a showcase. In fact, a Brazilian film crew was recently here to document it.”

At TAAR in Traverse City, the triple bottom line centers on energy efficiency. TAAR has implemented a program called SolTAAR which conducts energy assessments at REALTOR® offices and helps members learn how to become greener and save money. Kim Pontius, TAAR’s CEO, says the association’s headquarters is implementing a sustainability plan of its own.

“We’ll be putting in a large ground-based solar array and a Tesla wall to power our offices. Our hopes are to replace our electricity source and not just supplement it,” says Pontius.

The solar array and Tesla wall will also power four high-speed electric vehicle charging stations that will be situated in TAAR’s parking lot and available to its members and the general public.

“We will be applying for a grant to help offset the cost of the charging stations,” Pontius explains. “We want it to serve as a broker demonstration project.”

Pontius knows a thing or two about sustainability and resiliency. He’s a graduate of the Indiana University School of Environmental Affairs and wrote his Master’s thesis on sustainability.

“Sustainability means to concentrate on the long haul. You have to look at the economic impact and also at resources and capacity. Resiliency is more like a boxing match. You plan on how to withstand and come back from adversity. How to keep fighting.”

Traverse City: Where green meets blue

A popular local way to describe Traverse City is ‘where green meets blue.’ Situated on Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay, the city is an inland port surrounded by lush farmland and tiered hillsides. It’s been named by U.S. News & World Report as one of the nation’s best places to retire. To help maintain the area’s pristine beauty and livability and accommodate growth, TAAR’s various green solution efforts focus on residential, commercial, remodeling and property management. It helps promote environmental stewardship and educates property owners through a series of guidebooks it developed on topics such as land use, the surface waters of Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, the area’s watershed and septic systems. Its local environmental handbooks — called Green Solutions 4 or GS4 — have served as a model for statewide publications.

As more and more builders began focusing on green technology, Pontius said there was a learning gap for REALTORS® who needed to know how to sell those greener buildings. TAAR worked with the local home builders’ association to create a glossary of green terminology.

“It changed the dynamic between our associations and brought us into alignment with the builders,” Pontius explains. “It created goodwill and a working relationship. The builders were impressed that we used them as resource experts.”

TAAR also works closely with Traverse City officials in addressing sustainability and resiliency. In September, it hosted an Energy Salon that brought together major utilities, bankers, REALTORS® and other stakeholders to discuss how to make sure people living at all economic levels are able to access the benefits of energy efficiency and cost savings by creating “an energy system that has social equity at its core.”

“The city is very much involved with REALTORS® on lots of topics. We’re typically at the table.” About a dozen years ago, the city undertook a Grand Vision Transportation Study, designed as a 50-year land-use and transportation plan. The plan is now in the implementation phase and TAAR has been instrumental in funding and supporting a website designed to keep the public informed throughout the process.

Austin: Collaborating for the future

Austin, Texas, offers a great quality of life. For the third year in a row, the city has topped U.S. News and World Report’s list of best places to live.

A woman holding up a sign that says "Imagine Austin with a public transportation system that everyone uses, to conserve"

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin

REALTORS® in Austin are also focused on how sustainability and resiliency improve quality of life and are working collaboratively with city officials and various organizations to assure it. ABoR has been instrumental in Austin’s long process of rewriting the city’s land development code. Last updated in 1983, Emily Chenevert explains that the rewritten code will affect land use and zoning throughout the city and has the “ability to create more sustainability and improve quality of life. It will help people be connected to transit and connected to jobs. Transportation is the number one quality-of-life disruptive element in Austin, but it is really a land-use issue.”

She admits it’s been a long process, but a very important one. “The goal is to create a plan that allows for effective land use now and in the future and in a way that doesn’t disrupt existing communities. It’s important to preserve Austin’s quirkiness and uniqueness.”

Two men standing up while looking at a city planning map

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin

Throughout the process, ABoR has been reviewing working drafts, working with the mayor’s office and with city staff, and serving as a sounding board. It is hoped that the city will adopt the rewritten land development plan in early 2020.

ABoR also collaborates with a variety of businesses and organizations. It’s a proud member of Austin’s Green Business Council and Evolve Austin — a coalition of traditional partners such as builders and chambers of commerce and non-traditional partners such as nonprofit housing, neighborhood and environmental organizations dedicated to moving the city forward and meeting priority areas identified in the city’s comprehensive plan called Imagine Austin. “Collaborations are a great way to coalesce around definitive principles,” Chenevert says. “It’s a grassroots way to create a narrative not based on fear and provide a narrative on the positive aspects of change.”

Santa Barbara: Finding a balance

Located approximately two hours north of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara is often called the ‘American Riviera’ because of its beautiful beaches and high mountains. That’s a designation this city of approximately 92,000 is proud of and wants to protect while it also looks to the future.

Santa Barbara has very strict zoning regulations, especially as it pertains to the city’s picturesque downtown. Its primary land-use plans focus on how to properly deal with limited infill. SBAOR has been working with city leaders to increase density while maintaining the city’s quaint, historic character. One solution has been the implementation of the city’s Average Unit Density (AUD) program which allows for the construction of smaller, more affordable housing units near transit and with easy walking and biking access.

“AUD began as a trial program and the project has been more successful than expected,” says Bob Hart, SBAOR CEO. “AUD allows building to go from two stories to three stories. That’s our high rise. We won’t see 10-story buildings in downtown Santa Barbara. That’s not who we are. But this allows for greater density and still keeps our character.”

As of August 2019, more than 150 units designated as high density have been completed and 47 units have been completed in medium-high density areas. Several years ago, California made Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), commonly referred to as granny flats, legally mandated. Since January 2017, there have been more than 500 applications for ADUs in Santa Barbara and 148 have been completed. Hart says both AUD and ADUs have had positive impacts on density and sustainability.

Hart says SBAOR’s goal is to protect consumers and homeowners and work with local officials to address issues of sustainability and resiliency. 

“We’re working with the city council and talking about the planning process, and we’re getting their attention,” Hart says. “We’re all trying to make a more modern city within an existing framework.”

That sums it up across the board. From being prepared when challenges arise to planning for the future, REALTORS® are focusing on resiliency and sustainability.

Pontius explains why it’s so important, “Sustainability and resiliency will be paramount to creating great communities. The relevance of REALTORS®— especially in the areas of sustainability and resiliency — makes us the highly valued advisors that can help consumers lessen waste, save money and improve quality of life.”

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A free, semi-annual magazine published by NAR, On Common Ground presents a wide range of views on smart growth issues, with the goal of encouraging dialog among REALTORS®, elected officials, and other interested citizens.

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