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Columbia Law School Center for Climate Change Law: NYC Department of City Planning Introduces Zone Green

Columbia Law School Center for Climate Change Law


J. Cullen Howe   By J. Cullen Howe, Environmental Law Specialist, Arnold & Porter LLP

Zoning laws can sometimes make it more difficult for building owners to construct new green buildings or make existing ones more energy efficient.  The New York City Department of City Planning has attempted to address this issue by introducing Zone Green, a set of zoning proposals designed to remove some of these impediments and make it easier for owners to make their buildings more energy efficient and sustainable.  The Department estimates that if all of these proposals are implemented, buildings in New York City could collectively save as much as $800 million in energy costs per year.

If enacted, Zone Green would do the following:

External insulation for new buildings:  The proposal would exempt external insulation from floor area and yard requirements for existing buildings, which would enable existing buildings to add external insulation within their property line and potentially reduce energy consumption by as much as half.  Installing external insulation typically adds about four inches of wall thickness, but up to eight inches would be allowed to encourage highly efficient retrofits.

Allow thicker walls for new buildings:  For new buildings whose walls are substantially more efficient than required by New York City Energy Conservation Code, the proposal would allow up to eight inches of additional wall thickness to be exempted from floor area, encouraging high-performance buildings without changing the amount of usable space in the building.  This provision would be based on a minimum standard for the thermal performance of exterior walls, which would be incorporated into the NYCECC through legislation.

Allow solar panels to exceed height limits on buildings:  The proposal would enable solar panels to be added on top of any building roof by allowing them as a "permitted obstruction" even if they exceed a building's height limit.  The proposal would allow solar panels on flat roofs anywhere below the parapet, regardless of building height.  Portions of taller solar installations that are higher than 4 feet would be subject to limits on roof coverage and height. On sloping roofs, panels would be allowed to be flat-mounted as long as they are less than 18 inches high.

Allow shades to project from building facades:  The proposal would allow sun control devices such as vertical or horizontal shades or screens to project from building facades over open areas.  These horizontal or vertical projections can help reduce air-conditioning needs and lighting bills by providing glare-free natural light.  The current zoning code does not allow sun control devices to project over required open areas in some instances.

Allow rooftop equipment:  The proposal would allow more flexibility to accommodate a wide range of rooftop features, such as green roofs, stormwater management equipment, boilers or cogeneration facilities, recreational decks, and stair and elevator bulkheads that provide rooftop access.  Specifically, the proposal would allow low-lying features such as green roofs, recreational decks, other stormwater detention systems and skylights anywhere below the parapet, regardless of building height.  A guardrail no more than 30% opaque would be allowed up to 3'6" above the top surface of the roof.  Greater volume, similar to what is already allowed in many special districts, would be allowed above the maximum building height to accommodate modern bulkheads, with requirements for setback and screening of equipment.

Allow greenhouses on non-residential buildings:  The proposal would foster local food production by encouraging rooftop greenhouses by allowing a waiver of floor area and height limits for greenhouses on top of buildings without residences or sleeping accommodations.  These greenhouses must not exceed 25 feet in height, must set back six feet from the roof edge, and must include practical measures to limit water consumption.

Encourage wind energy:  The proposal would allow wind turbines to exceed height limits on taller buildings and in locations near the waterfront (except low-density residential neighborhoods) where winds are most conducive to power generation.  On buildings taller than 100 feet, a wind turbine assembly may rise up to 55 feet above the rooftop (including the pole and rotor), provided it is set back at least 10 feet from any property line.  On waterfront blocks in medium- or higher-density residential districts, commercial or manufacturing districts, all buildings could install rooftop turbines up to half the height of the building or 55 feet, whichever is less.  Free-standing turbines would be allowed in commercial and manufacturing areas on waterfront blocks.  All wind installations would have to comply with requirements set forth by the Department of Buildings.

The Zone Green text amendment is currently undergoing a public review process, which includes referral to all 59 community boards in the city, the five borough presidents, and review by the City Planning Commission and the City Council.  The review process is expected to take six months.

Green City of the Future

Reprinted with permission from Green Building Law Update Service.

The Green Building Law Update Service is a 2011 LexisNexis Top 50 Blogs for Environmental Law & Climate Change winner.

For additional Green Building Resources, go to Green Buildings at the LexisNexis Real Estate Law Community.

J. Cullen Howe is an environmental law specialist at Arnold & Porter LLP. Much of Cullen's work focuses on climate change, where he attempts to educate lawyers and the public at large on the enormous cooperation necessary to adequately address this problem. In addition to his work on climate change, Cullen is the managing editor of Environmental Law in New York, edits the Environmental Law Practice Guide, Brownfields Law and Practice, the Environmental Impact Review in New York, and has drafted chapters in the Environmental Law Practice Guide on climate change and green building. Mr. Howe is a graduate of Vermont Law School, where he was the managing editor of the Vermont Law Review, and a graduate of DePauw University, where he was a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

These publications can be purchased at the Store by clicking on the above links. subscribers may also access them at the following links: Environmental Law in New York; Environmental Law Practice Guide; Brownfields Law and Practice; Environmental Impact Review in New York. subscribers may also access comprehensive Green Building materials at All Green Buildings Analytical Materials, Legal News, Surveys & Briefs.

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