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Developers to pay for their pollution?

Jeremy Heiman

Developers in Pitkin County could be required to compensate for air pollution that results from their projects.

If it becomes law, the plan would allow a developer to contribute money to pollution prevention projects in the community, rather than making direct physical improvements to reduce the amount of dust and other particles in the air.

But the Pitkin County Environmental Health Department is having difficulty establishing appropriate dollar amounts, because no other community in Colorado has ever attempted to make developers accountable for pollution.

Particles called PM10 (because their size is 10 microns or less) are tiny bits of airborne dust, soot and grime that can lodge deep in the lungs. The primary source of PM10 is road sand ground to dust by vehicle tires. PM10 is also raised by construction, restaurant grills, agricultural activities and driving on unpaved roads.

Development in the county, whether residential or commercial, increases traffic. Currently, the county requires anyone building a project to reduce the amount of PM10 produced, perhaps by paving a road or parking lot, or by reducing the amount of traffic generated.

Developments have been required to do such things as creating “auto disincentive” plans, devising van pools for residents, developing incentives for walking or building sidewalks and bike paths.

Because some projects are too small to make an expenditure such as purchasing a van or building a bike path, the county’s environmental health department wants to allow developments of all sizes to make a payment in place of physical mitigation.

“What we’re trying to do is come up with a way to mitigate their air impacts with a fee-based system,” said Lance Clarke, the county’s deputy planning director.

“I’d rather make it easy for them, and we’ll put that toward a grander project,” said Tom Dunlop, environmental health director.

He said the department wanted to have a cash program in place before now.

“We had a goal of last year,” Dunlop said. “But the more we looked into it, the more complicated we saw it was.”

The number of vehicle miles traveled per day for a project is a measure of the impact of that development. The environmental health department can estimate the vehicle miles generated by various types of development.

Figures on vehicle miles or number of trips generated can be translated into amounts of PM10. But figuring out how to translate the impacts of driving into dollar amounts will be difficult.

“We wanted to come up with a way to do this which was fair to everyone,” said senior Environmental Health Specialist Nancy MacKenzie.

MacKenzie said she’s called other local governments around the state and not found a similar program.

“It doesn’t seem like anyone else is doing what we’re doing,” she said.

So the department has sought the help of a consultant.

“We finally just threw up our hands and contacted Jim Charlier,” Dunlop said.

At this time, Charlier Associates, a Boulder planning firm, has prepared a proposal, but has not yet been hired. But if the firm is hired, its first task will be to try to locate a similar project elsewhere to learn from.

The firm would then attempt to determine a fair scale of assessments for development proposals, based on the amount of traffic generated.

After a fee scale is developed, the plan must be discussed with the county’s planning department and then be presented to the county commissioners. Public hearings would no doubt be held to seek the opinion of the development community and the general public before a plan would be formally adopted.

These mitigation requirements would apply only to PM10, Dunlop said, and not to tailpipe emissions or other forms of pollution. The reason for the PM10 mitigation process is that Aspen and neighboring parts of the county failed to clear federal Clean Air Act standards in 1987. The city and county have been required to control that type of pollution since then.

The city of Aspen and Pitkin County now have a fee-based energy efficiency plan in effect, known as the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program. People building houses must either add renewable energy features to their houses or pay a fee.

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