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An Overview of the Green Building Incentive Program
Arlington, VA could consider itself lucky. Located just across
the Potomac from the nation’s capital, it has a number of built-
in advantages: an educated and diverse population, high de-
mand for commercial and multifamily housing development,
and a mature rapid transit system, to name a few.
Yet, to call the County’s transition to a model for smart growth
“luck” is to discount over half a century of forward thinking
and careful planning. If anything, Arlington’s luck is what hap-
pens “when preparation meets opportunity,” as the adage
goes. Its green building program offers a recent example.
In the late 1990s, the Department of Environmental Services
(DES) began exploring ways to improve building performance. Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, Credit
Virginia has a restrictive statewide energy code, so DES de-
cided to incorporate LEED into its zoning process instead. In 1999, Arlington became the first government in the country at
any level to adopt a LEED-based initiative, the Green Building Incentive Program (The Program).

Policy Overview
The Program draws on Arlington’s high property values and low zoning density, which ensure that most commercial and
multifamily residential projects exceed zoning limits and must go through a special site plan process. This way, the County
maintains a large degree of control over development. In its current form, the Program has two levels: the basic site plan
and the bonus density program.
The County asks developers to meet a set of green building site plan conditions. While not mandatory, developers know
they must commit to a minimum of 40 LEED credits to receive project approval. Some credits, such as underground park-
ing and access to public transit, are almost automatic in Arlington. Others require advanced planning between DES officials
and the project team, including at least one LEED Accredited Professional on staff. Together, they create a plan to reach
the minimum goal, with give-and-take on both sides. The County also requests that projects that do not achieve official
LEED certification donate to the Green Building Fund for education and outreach.
For more ambitious projects, the innovative bonus density program takes this process one step further by offering addi-
tional density in exchange for LEED certification. DES determines the amount of extra square footage granted (usually 4-
5% of the original) based on a Floor Area Ratio (FAR) calculation that accounts for the size and type of the building and the
LEED certification level. Unlike the basic site plan, the bonus density program has an explicit enforcement mechanism: the
County requires the developer to post a bond that the County can claim if the building fails to receive the promised certifi-

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Best Practices and Lessons Learned
In 1999, LEED was a relative unknown. Few politicians were concerned with carbon emissions or green building—or green
anything, for that matter. Yet Arlington was able to adopt the Program due to strong leadership from DES planner Joan
Kelsch and city councilmember Paul Ferguson. They realized LEED’s potential for improving the County, and their passion
for the Program drove its acceptance. As Ms. Kelsch admits, it became “a bit of an obsession.” Using their influence within
environmental and political circles, they gathered a broad stakeholder group to inform the policy development process.
Of course, Arlington’s long history of smart growth is not easily replicable nationwide, but the takeaway for cities every-
where is that innovative ideas often require a champion. For all their recent growth, energy and resource efficient build-
ings can still be new and risky concepts in the political arena. Champions must sell green building with an eye towards their
audience. More often than not, this requires communicating the economic, health, and energy security benefits of green
building with as much passion and intelligence as the environmental side of the equation.
Continuous leadership has also assisted the Program in adapting to the changing climate for green building. Ms. Kelsch,
who still runs the Program for DES, spearheaded a revision and expansion in 2003 to ratchet up the requirements above
what had become standard practice in the area. In 2009, DES again updated the program by decreasing FAR for LEED Certi-
fied and Silver and increasing it for Platinum in an attempt to push the highest standards of design and construction. An-
other crucial change was to split commercial and multifamily residential construction into separate categories, the latter
receiving an increase in FAR for each LEED level to account for the added difficulty of achieving certification.
After two significant revisions and a decade in operation, DES has smoothed out many of the Program’s wrinkles—but not
all. Although DES catches most potential issues prior to or during construction, a completed project occasionally fails to
reach the minimum number of LEED credits. Simply rejecting the permit application is a difficult and unsatisfying choice
DES would rather avoid. Reaching the minimum threshold, however, is not negotiable. Therefore, DES and the developer
sit down to work out a new strategy to meet the intent of the site plan, if not the letter, such as purchasing additional wind
A related issue common to local governments is the difficulty of checking for LEED credits on-site. DES does not have the
workforce needed to conduct on-site inspections, and the Inspection Services Department (ISD), while supportive of the
Program, lacks the time and training to check for LEED credits on top of its primary on-site responsibilities. The problem
comes down to a lack of available resources for interdepartmental collaboration. DES conducted one LEED training for
code officials, but knows that it must do more. Ideally, the next revision of the Program will address this deficiency and
establish a coordinated effort that elevates green building to the status of traditional life/health/safety issues.

The Green Building Incentive Program continues to achieve results. In the five years following the 2003 revision, DES ap-
proved 54 building site plans, with over half of the office space and almost a quarter of the residential units scheduled to
achieve LEED certification. Moreover, DES is now measuring energy use in existing buildings as part of Arlington’s Fresh
AIRE climate change initiative. To learn more about Arlington County’s green building policies, please contact Joan Kelsch,
Environmental Planner for the Department of Environmental Services.

All information for this resource was collected by Eric Plunkett during telephone interviews with Joan Kelsch and her colleagues in May-August of
2009 and using city, state, and national online resources.

OCEAN is an online resource of the Building Codes Assistance Project

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