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Along with more than 100 of our local county and city elected officials and staff, developer representatives, and members of the public, I listened with an open mind March 18 to a panel of developers, landscape architects, and county staff discuss barriers to Low Impact Development. 

I had just opened the Low Impact Development Forum with a keynote address on why we should be developing using principles that protect biodiversity, essential ecosystem services, and our precious water quantity and quality. 

I did not invoke the current, unusual mass-mortality event where hundreds of manatees are starving to death in our northern Indian River Lagoon and southern Mosquito Lagoon, but I should have. 

Every bit of land developed in this county that is sending fertilizers and human waste to the lagoons is contributing to that. 

Instead, being an optimistic promoter of the “triple bottom line of sustainability” (good for the planet, for people, and for prosperity), I invoked demonstrable customer demand and profit potential as an enticement to developers and to local decision-makers to offer the genuine “quality of life” the influx of new residents into Volusia County flock here to enjoy. 

Low-impact neighborhoods conserve plenty of natural areas in connection to preserved public lands. 

Using soft engineering solutions, they maintain original vegetation or install native-plant landscapes on each lot, along the streets, and between streets to facilitate on-site water filtration and aquifer recharge. 

They also invite residents to explore those natural areas with accessible trails, and connect the neighborhoods to nearby urban centers and schools with safe and equitable trails separated from dangerous roads with high-speed motor vehicles. 

Sometimes these low-impact neighborhoods even preserve the previous land-use function of food production at their core as a newly popular neighborhood amenity — aka an “agrihood.” 

But, the panel that followed my keynote address was eye-opening for me. I learned that developers have no reason to go above and beyond state statutes or county codes, which do provide some minimal protections. 

The county does offer incentives to protect more land than the minimum code requires, but developers rarely pursue those incentives. 

Most landscape architects and engineers know how to design with low-impact development principles, but they don’t do it if the client doesn’t request it. 

They are not willing to take risks without strong evidence that the designs work because they are liable for a system failure. (I would say that hundreds of dead manatees represent a system failure with the traditional design manuals.) 

Bruce Doig from VHB in Orlando countered all of the excuses for why we can’t develop better, by presenting a slate of success stories from elsewhere in Florida. 

These projects are developed by visionary developers, or developed in counties that have chosen to hold higher standards than we do here in Volusia. And homebuyers do, in fact, flock to them. 

What we have here is a situation where each entity is blaming everybody else. 

State and county policymakers are beholden to developers for the money those developers deliver. 

Water management districts, FL-DEP, and other agencies are just following the rules and regulations established by policymakers. 

Some say there is not enough science to support Low Impact Development, and yet the University of Florida has entire centers and institutes dedicated to studying these now-well-established practices. 

Designers are just providing what their developer client requests, as do the developers’ attorneys. 

Developers simply say there is no market demand for anything other than clear-cut, cookie-cutter, high-density neighborhoods. 

Who is going to create the market demand? If the interior designers can create sales centers for these neighborhoods that celebrate the LID features as desirable amenities, and if the sales staff and local Realtors are trained to help buyers understand the benefits to their quality of life, then the market demand will be there. 

We have several new developments in West Volusia that are not out of the gate. It is not too late to demand that developers offer something better. 

Our communities as a whole will benefit, and so will our water and wildlife. 

— Dr. Wendy Anderson is chair of the Volusia Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors, and professor and chair of environmental science and studies at Stetson University. 

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