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New city zoning plans tied to changes in climate

City officials proposed new zoning rules Tuesday that would require developers of large new buildings in Boston to submit plans to deal with flooding, heat waves, and other potential complications of climate change as sea levels and temperatures are projected to rise.

The rules, which will be presented to the Boston Redevelopment Authority board next month, are among a number of steps city officials said they have taken since Hurricane Sandy last year demonstrated the dangers posed by a changing climate and increasingly potent storms along the East Coast.

City officials also said they have identified municipal buildings, tunnels, MBTA stations, roads, and other low-lying areas that are most vulnerable to flooding and should be the focus of efforts to lessen the damage from floods.


“Climate change is rapidly and drastically altering the world in which we live, and Boston, like many other coastal cities, will suffer if we don’t take action,” Brian Swett, the city’s chief of environment and energy, said at a press conference at the New England Aquarium. “We cannot and will not kick the can down the road for someone else to deal with, because this issue is not generations away; it’s right on our doorstep.”

Swett said the city has already cut greenhouse gas emissions at hundreds of municipal buildings and throughout its departments by more than one-quarter since 2005, potentially allowing the city to cut more carbon dioxide than it had planned. City officials have pledged to cut emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Swett and others noted that the city still has a way to go: Overall emissions, which include those from commercial and residential sources, have been reduced 11 percent.

“Eleven percent is a good start, but it is ultimately low-hanging fruit that has been cut,” said George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “We need to work harder.”


City officials said they have cut emissions by switching from oil to natural gas, replacing thousands of streetlights with more efficient light-emitting diodes, and adopting other energy conservation measures in municipal buildings from schools to public libraries.

The city has to make hard political choices, such as doing more to curb vehicle use, promote public transit, and revise zoning ordinances, Bachrach said.

He called the proposed rules for new buildings greater than 50,000 square feet a start, but even if approved by the BRA, zoning needs to be applied to current buildings as well, he said. “We need to be retrofitting older buildings of all sizes,” he said. “That’s how you reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I believe we need the guidelines to be more specific.”

Swett said the proposed rules would require developers to fill out a lengthy checklist about their building’s ability to withstand floods, cope with power outages, and conserve energy, among other things. But he said the city has no plans to institute blanket regulations about where a developer might house electrical systems or what kind of materials they use.

“The significance of these guidelines is that developers of every major project going forward in the city will have to look at the projections of climate change and describe how they are prepared in their design, construction, and operations for the potential impacts,” Swett said. “This will be a dialogue between developers and the city.”

David Begelfer, chief executive for NAIOP Massachusetts, which represents the state’s commercial real estate industry, said he worries the city has misplaced priorities.


“We have serious concerns about the ability of the city or state to absorb a storm like Sandy,” he said. “We think they should be more concerned about transit, communications, fuel, and other critical utilities.”

Begelfer said developers already take a building’s resilience into consideration, because their lenders, investors, and insurance underwriters require they do. “We would rather see a lot more attention to issues that should be dealt with now, for storms that might come this year or next,” he said.

Asked to comment on the proposed regulations, mayoral candidate and Councilor at Large John R. Connolly issued a statement saying, “The longer we wait to take action to improve our resilience, the harder and more expensive it will become. We have to start now, and this includes looking at our zoning and building codes to make sure that development takes account of the new reality.”

State Representative Martin J. Walsh, Connolly’s opponent in Tuesday’s election, declined to comment, though his campaign has previously highlighted his desire to curb the impact of climate change.

A study last year by the US Geological Survey found that the seas along the East Coast from North Carolina to New England are rising three to four times faster than the global average, and coastal cities, utilities, beaches, and wetlands are increasingly vulnerable to flooding.

Climate models have projected that the oceans will rise between 2 feet and 6 feet by the end of the century, and up to an additional 5 feet during the heaviest storms.


In Boston, recently released maps show that if sea levels rise just 2.5 feet, it could take little more than a nor’easter to put large sections of the Back Bay, East Boston, South Boston, Chelsea, and Cambridge underwater, including much of Logan International Airport and the Financial District.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.