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Having been dealt a setback earlier this year when its congestion pricing plan died in the New York State Legislature, the Bloomberg administration and its PlaNYC environmental initiative enjoyed a big inning during the legislative session’s final days. Even as Mayor Michael Bloomberg applauded Home Depot’s plan to open recycling centers for compact fluorescent lights at its stores in New York City and elsewhere, a number of bills were being passed in Albany that will help advance PlaNYC’s goals.

Both houses of the legislature approved separate bills related to tax benefits for installing solar panels and green roofs in New York City. The state’s “net metering” program, allowing those with wind-powered generating systems to provide energy back into the grid and get a credit against their own usage, will be expanded to include commercial customers. Stiffer “block the box” penalties have been enacted to help ease New York City gridlock. Additionally, construction of the Gansevoort waste-transfer station, in the works for more than three years, will finally move forward under an agreement between the city and the legislature.

Of the two tax-abatement provisions, it seems likely that the one rewarding installation of a green roof may get more takers at the moment. “Relatively speaking, if you have an appropriate roof, it’s easy to put on a green roof,” attorney Caroline Harris tells Real Estate New York. “And there are multiple benefits to doing so,” as compared to the solar panel, which only generates one benefit, albeit a substantial one: producing energy.

“The green roof will reduce the amount of energy you need, because it cools your building in the summer and insulates it in the winter, so you need less heat,” says Harris, who led a Troutman Sanders LLP team that drafted the tax-abatement legislation on behalf of pro bono client Sustainable South Bronx. “It cools the ambient air, so it’s good for the environment, and it deals with storm water runoff, so it addresses that environmental issue as well. It provides benefits on multiple planes.”

Harris says Sustainable South Bronx, founded in 2001 by MacArthur Foundation fellow Majora Carter, actively promoted the green roofs bill in tandem with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the S.W.I.M. (Storm Water Infrastructure Matters) Coalition. The legislation provides for a one-year tax abatement of up to $100,000 on the installation of a green roof, at a rate of $4.50 per sf. A green roof is defined as an addition to a roof that includes a growth medium and a vegetation layer of drought-resistant, hardy plant species.

“This tax abatement will act as an economic stimulus by creating living wage green-collar jobs that are pathways out of poverty,” says Rob Crauderueff, director of sustainable policy at Sustainable South Bronx and chair of S.W.I.M’s policy committee, in a prepared release. S.W.I.M is a coalition of 50 city, state and national organizations “dedicated to ensuring fishable and swimmable waters around New York through natural, sustainable storm water management practices,” according to the release.

Harris notes that while the number of contractors qualified to install green roofs is relatively low, “I would see this as a growing business in what you would call ‘green collar’ jobs.” Among the landscaping contractors active in the green-roof sector is Plant Fantasies Inc., which has installed such coverings at high-end apartment buildings but is also finalizing one for Mount Hope Community Center in the northwest Bronx.

Aesthetic appeal played a part in Shaun Belle’s decision to put a green roof on the community center. “We want to create a visual patchwork of green in an asphalt jungle with very few open spaces,” says Belle, CEO of Mount Hope Housing Co., in a prepared release. “Our goal is to soften up the landscape with trees, shrubs and flowering plants.” According to the release, three levels of planted outdoor terraces will offer views from multiple levels of the building, and the 3,600-sf green roof—plus a smaller, 900-sf roof—will perform water retention and cooling functions for the building.

The Mount Hope example helps illustrate Harris’ belief that green-roof installation is “lots of different types of buildings. I see a lot of interest on a citywide basis in doing something to help our environment, and this is a tangible action people can take.” She adds that the tax abatement will help spur interest in green roofs.

For optimal results, Harris says, green roofs should be installed “on all of the buildings in the neighborhood, to reduce the temperature on a neighborhood-wide basis. That would be fantastic for the environment.” Naturally, this would require somebody taking the lead after installing a green roof: organizing his or her fellow property owners to follow the example. “Community boards would be a good place for people to publicize green roofs and maybe get activities going on a community-wide basis.”

The green-roof tax abatement is a five-year pilot program, subject to renewal in 2013, and Harris is confident that the program will prove itself in that time. It may also serve as a pilot program in another sense, that of setting an example for smaller municipalities or counties to follow. Harris says, “Right now the legislation is geared toward cities of more than one million”—of which New York City is the only one in the state—”but I see no reason why cities with smaller populations shouldn’t seek to have the same environmental benefits.”

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