Burlingame shines green lantern on eco-friendly building 

Burlingame has gone bright green, but it’s the other San Mateo County cities that ought to feel envious.

Mayor Terry Nagel said Burlingame is “ahead of schedule” for meeting the state’s carbon emission reduction goals. Meanwhile, about two-thirds of county cities don’t even have climate action plans yet.

California’s Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006 requires local governments to reduce their greenhouse gases by 15 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

In 2007, Nagel felt her city was “behind the curve,” so she launched a series of community consultations that, like seeds from a magic beanstalk, grew into a pillar of eco-actions.

“Some of the best stuff we’ve done is to require people to take green measures when they build,” said Nagel, who accepted the Environmental Hall of Fame’s green award for the city in April.

Burlingame’s ordinances require builders to check off ways they will green their designs, a process overseen by a green-building specialist. In October, the City Council approved a downtown plan that encourages new developments to provide easy access to mass transit, bicycling and walking options. More recently, it received grants to build more bike paths.

The city offers a reduction in cost for energy audits and free solar permits. Burlingame also installed a methane-powered cogeneration system at the city’s wastewater treatment plant, has adopted a water-efficient landscaping ordinance and worked with hotels in town to increase recycling by 37 percent.

Soon, it plans to adopt a policy to provide prioritized city parking for hybrid, rideshare or alternative-fuel cars. The city hosts an annual green fair and a green seminar series. And city employees are required to purchase green-friendly products.

Not surprisingly, other county cities can’t hold a green lantern to Burlingame.

For one, setting up and implementing climate plans is complicated and costly. Just last month, San Bruno approved a $38,000 contract to develop its plan, City Manager Connie Jackson said.

And even with a consultant’s help, the state’s standards aren’t entirely clear, said Richard Napier, executive director of the City/County Association of Governments. That is why the association has created a climate plan template that lays out measurable, easily managed goals.

The association is working on climate plans with five or six cities.

About six cities in the county already have plans, but Napier said some list too many targets, or targets that are hard to track. For example, when cities propose to reduce citywide gas usage — a seemingly sensible goal — they can run into trouble calculating the results.

The county, however, can use franchise tax board data to measure gas usage, which is why Napier recommends the county — not cities — target gas. The county also is a natural choice for public transport goals, since it provides much of the Peninsula’s mass-transit options.

Napier said the best place for cities to start climate-saving steps is on government property. Putting timers on air conditioners, using energy-efficient lights, up-sizing pumps at sewage plants and setting up solar panels are a few immediate actions that provide impactful, measurable and often cost-efficient results.


Environmental building blocks

Burlingame’s green achievements

  • Passed green building ordinance requiring developments to incorporate new environmental measures
  • Converted the city’s wastewater treatment plant to partial methane power
  • Approved a downtown plan emphasizing access to pedestrians, bikers, and public transit
  • Provides green education for the public.
  • Offers energy audit discounts.
  • Adopted water efficient landscaping ordinance
  • Instituted a policy whereby city staff must purchase green-friendly products
  • Eliminated fees for solar permits

Countywide progress

  • San Mateo adopted its Climate Action Plan in 2008 and passed a mandatory green building ordinance in 2010.
  • San Mateo County is implementing an Energy Efficiency Climate Action Plan to meet state goals for greenhouse gas reductions.
  • South San Francisco proposed a climate action plan last August.
  • San Carlos passed its climate plan in 2009.

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Niko Kyriakou

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