Sustainable land-use: A pandemic-recovery priority

All systems green: New, sustainability-focused land-use regulations must be created before the next disaster strikes, according to attorney Michael Sahn.
By MICHAEL H. SAHN //

We are at a pivotal moment in history. The unlikely but seismic convergence of a global pandemic, economic collapse and sudden, stark protest of social inequality have awakened us all to the need for change – our culture, our laws, our economy.

This is a time to rethink how we live and work, and that especially includes how we manage our land and our environmental resources.

From a global standpoint, we must reconsider our land-use and environmental-management policies and take an integrated approach to sustainability. Otherwise, we will remain vulnerable to cataclysmic environmental events.

Disrupted water and food supplies, natural-resource shortages, economic displacement, interruptions in our transportation and energy-delivery systems, new healthcare crises – just a partial list of the consequences of incoherent development and environmental inaction.

During the pandemic, we’ve witnessed dam collapses in the Midwest, extreme weather events across the South, sporadic disruptions in the national food supply, threats to water resources, destruction of large parts of the Amazon rainforest, the spread of disease exacerbated by poor hygiene and mismanaged urban planning – including unchecked population density and inadequate healthcare resources.

Michael Sahn: Act now.

On the other hand, the forced shutdown of normal economic activity has resulted in less air and noise pollution, less use of oil and fossil fuels, less traffic congestion and fewer greenhouse emissions.

Recognizing these realities, we need to adopt new policies for a sustainable future. These are global issues, but, as a region, there are plenty of ideas to consider.

We could create a uniform code for coordinated land-use and environmental management, a single set of guidelines on major development projects for municipalities throughout the state to follow. This one-stop document can replace separate land-use, building code and environmental regulations that are often inconsistent and difficult to follow.

A system of defined and substantial incentives and bonuses could be created for land-use projects that incorporate sustainability measures. The more a project preserves water, soil and natural resources, the better its green-energy compliance and resource management, the more rewards the developer receives.

New requirements incorporating surrounding infrastructure improvements in development projects – and corresponding incentives for implementing such improvements – seem logical. So does a comprehensive criterion for mitigating climate change: mandatory, uniform land-use guidelines on greenhouse gas emissions and more.

We need new land-use systems that enable developers and users to maximize the economic and social benefits of a development, while also maintaining and enhancing the environment and the ecological system.

What’s the use: More than just colors on a map.

We can also use existing technology to predict the near- and long-term environmental impacts of land development projects, and apply strategies to limit them. And we need to continue studying that complex relationship between land development and climate change, devoting some of these technological resources to new research that makes us smarter in how we use our land.

New measures managing energy and water demand, reducing stormwater runoff, promoting alternative energy, mitigating rising ocean temperatures and lowering the heat generated by urban centers are also essential. And community hygiene – from basic sanitation to the disposal of toxins – must factor in, to a much greater degree than ever before.

Ultimately, we must develop criteria for the enhancement of community health and wellbeing, and incorporate it in all development plans. We must set timeframes to implement these measures, and they must be applied uniformly and consistently.

The consequences of not acting are substantial. As we reset our post-pandemic agenda, we must make land-use and environmental management a top priority.

Michael H. Sahn, Esq., is the managing member of Uniondale law firm Sahn Ward Coschignano, where he concentrates on zoning and land-use planning, real estate law and transactions, and corporate, municipal and environmental law. He also represents the firm’s clients in civil litigation and appeals.