If a municipality’s land use code language does not clearly state that green infrastructure is an acceptable or preferred approach to managing stormwater, it will likely not be considered in development proposals, design plans, or capital projects—even if some community members are interested in it.
Realizing this, Julia Noordyk, water quality and coastal communities outreach specialist with Wisconsin Sea Grant, is working with communities to assess their current codes and ordinances. She is helping them determine if these codes allow for green infrastructure as a means of reducing flooding, improving water quality, and adding aesthetic appeal. Julia is using the workbook she created, Tackling Barriers to Green Infrastructure: An Audit of Local Codes and Ordinances, as a starting point for confronting regulatory obstacles. It helps communities review and prioritize their codes and ordinances in the context of improving stormwater runoff mitigation through the reduction of impervious surfaces and enabling green infrastructure implementation.
The workbook describes a community-oriented engagement approach to identifying the individual needs of the community. Additionally, it provides a detailed auditing tool, highlights common key challenges, and recommends next steps.
To test the workbook and community engagement process, Julia has been piloting it with the city of Port Washington, Wisconsin. Through an existing relationship with Wisconsin Sea Grant and the Coastal Storms Program, Julia learned that Port Washington was eager to increase their its resilience, and wanted to use green infrastructure as a tool to help them achieve this.
Initially, Julia told community leaders that she had just completed a final draft of the green infrastructure audit, and asked if they would be interested in working through it to identify opportunities for code amendments. “The mayor was supportive of this project since day one, and participated in all of our meetings,” Julia says. “He offered a ton of local knowledge and saw the benefits of using green infrastructure as a resilience tool.”
Julia’s role in the project was to coordinate the work, engage the community, build a team of experts, and keep it moving. Working alongside Julia were Juli Beth Hinds, a land use planner and the creator of the audit tool, and Kate Morgan, a community engagement specialist. Port Washington’s mayor, public works director, and planning director each participated in the audit.
“I’m not a land use planner or a stormwater engineer, so it’s been great having Juli Beth, from Orion Planning + Design, help guide the community through their codes and ordinances audit and make recommendations for revisions,” says Julia. “I also appreciate Kate Morgan’s experience in using the methodology with other Wisconsin communities and helping key in on engagement strategies with Port Washington. I highly recommend having someone on the team who can speak at the local planning level.”
Julia conducted the process within three meetings.
- The first meeting focused on the team getting to know each other, discussing the scope of the project, and agreeing to provide feedback to Julia on the experience. The team also talked about Port Washington’s goals for auditing its codes: making the community more resilient to coastal hazards and having green infrastructure be part of the solution.
The municipality’s first task was to fill out the community scoping worksheet, which asks questions about community planning, community identity, hazards, stormwater regulations, natural assets, and current green infrastructure usage. This helps uncover any concerns or objections that the community might have to green infrastructure, and helps to identify potential allies for adopting code changes that favor these practices.
- During the second meeting, Julia and her team met with the municipal staff to discuss the town’s responses to the community scoping questions. Julia noted that in addition to the comments by the planning and public works directors, having the mayor in this meeting added helpful details and information.
Overall, the community scoping exercise revealed that the city was open to green infrastructure, but was not moving ahead as much it could be. They discussed several areas of opportunity for implementing green infrastructure and identified potential supporters, including the Port Washington Environmental Planning Committee, Ozaukee County Land Trust, and the Treasures of Oz, a partnership of organizations and individuals who work together to promote environmental awareness, education, and stewardship in the county.
The city’s next step was to use the workbook’s audit tool to review and grade itself on its codes and ordinances. Each worksheet addresses a key code and ordinance topic area where green infrastructure and impervious surfacing barriers are found. The tool provides a grading matrix to indicate whether a code, policy, or operation is enabling, conditional, ambiguous, discouraging, or conflicting with green infrastructure. Example questions in the worksheet include, “Are green infrastructure practices suitable for high-density areas (e.g., planter boxes, cisterns) allowed to extend into the right-of-way or onto sidewalks?” and “Has green infrastructure education been provided to planning boards and elected officials?”
- When it was time for the third meeting, the goal was to review the city’s audit. However, the town didn’t get as far as it had hoped with the audit. Luckily, Juli Beth came prepared. She reviewed the city’s codes and offered recommendations on which audit topic areas to focus on, as well as where amendments were needed.
“Although Port Washington really wants to increase their resilience and is keen on going through this process, we have three very busy people on the team, all with day jobs,” Julia notes. “Finding the time to do the audit was somewhat of a barrier for them. We’ve had to do more hand-holding than anticipated, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. It’s why we are here.”
One of Juli Beth’s recommendations, which is one she often makes, was related to the city’s landscaping standards; she pointed out that they were very prescriptive. This, according to Juli Beth, is a major “missed opportunity.” Juli Beth wanted to get them thinking about how the standards could be amended to allow for, and encourage the use of, green infrastructure-friendly landscaping. Too often, landscaping is an afterthought in development projects, but if brought in as a stormwater management tool, it can have significant payoffs in terms of reducing stormwater and pollution.