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County of San Mateo – Green Building Program to Address Climate Change

Case Story

Climate Action Connection: Green Building

Green building programs like San Mateo County’s that include incentives for incrementally higher green points motivate project applicants to increase energy efficiency and resource conservation in building construction, thus achieving greater greenhouse gas reductions.

Community:San Mateo County

Population: 730,000


San Mateo County’s green building ordinance requires all new and remodeled residential and commercial projects to earn a minimum number of green points on either the GreenPoint Rated or LEED checklists. Those that earn incrementally more points are entitled to expedited processing time.

Program Highlights

  • Residential: minimum green points required for all new and some remodels and additions.
  • Commercial: minimum green points required for all new and some remodels.
  • Expedited review and permit approval available to stimulate projects exceeding minimum green point requirements.
  • A refundable $5,000 deposit required if occupancy permit precedes final green certification.

Lessons Learned

  • Outreach to and education of building community is essential to securing their cooperation in a green building program.

Resources to Learn More

The Rest of the Story…

In early 2007, after considerable outreach with the building community and local residents, San Mateo County adopted a green building program, on a one-year trial basis. County building officials monitored the number of projects subject to the green building standards, as well as concerns and questions by project applicants and staff met monthly to review the program’s status. Of 64 residential projects processed during the trial period, over half exceeded the minimum number of required green points in order to take advantage of quicker review and approval.

Green Building Ordinance with Incentives

In March 2008, the county adopted a mandatory ordinance. It covers the following:

  • All new single and multi-family residential projects, and those proposing a 50 percent or more expansion, must earn at least 50 points on the GreenPoint Rated checklist.
  • All new or remodeled commercial buildings over 3,000 square feet must earn LEED certification.
  • Expedited processing is offered as an incentive to projects that exceed the minimum requirements. Residential projects earning 75 points or more on the GreenPoint Rated checklist or seeking LEED for Homes certification are guaranteed staff feedback on the first round building permit applications within 30 days. Residential projects earning at least 100 points are, in addition, guaranteed a building inspection within two days of a request. As a result, most residential applications are proposing 75-100 green points. Similar incentives are offered for commercial projects exceeding the minimum requirements.
  • Project applicants must hire third-party raters certified under Build It Green or LEED, as applicable, to perform the final building certification. If a project has received a final occupancy permit prior to final green certification, the county requires a refundable $5,000 deposit as assurance that the building will meet the green standards stated on the building permit application.

The program is deemed a success, and county staff plan to propose a program expansion to include smaller remodels and a wider variety of building projects.

Countywide Coordination

San Mateo County initiated its green building program to spearhead green building not only in the unincorporated areas, but also as a means to encourage consistency among the 20 cities in the county. It was the county’s intention to approve a program that other local cities could adopt. Thus, the county has brought together cities within the county to provide education about the potential of green building programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. County officials report that coordination and discussion among cities regarding adoption of green building programs has been very successful. Since the county adopted its ordinance, several cities in the county are working on developing their own green building programs.

Compiled May 2009

This case story was prepared in partnership with the California Air Resources Board.

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