Green Roof Initiative Backer on His Missteps, Future in City Policy

Brandon Rietheimer might have successfully pushed the most controversial measure on last November's ballot, but the man behind the Green Roof Initiative is anything but.

Inspired by Bernie Sanders's campaign (and terrified by Donald Trump's election), Rietheimer, a manager of a local Red Robin, took it upon himself to write the proposal that became Initiative 300 and then launch its successful campaign that was outspent twelve to one by opponents, which included big developers and real estate heavy hitters.

But months after I-300 passed, Rietheimer admits that his first foray into city politics wasn't without missteps. "[I-300] could have been written a little clearer, more specifically," he says. "That would have given us a case to be stronger."

Rietheimer and a group of other stakeholders, some of whom opposed the Green Roof Initiative, have been meeting since the start of the year to smooth out the language. During a meeting on Monday, April 2, representatives of various city agencies tasked with implementing the initiative and Denver City Council members in the stakeholder group agreed that, if implemented without changes, I-300 could produce unintended harmful consequences. (Another meeting is scheduled for Monday, April 23.)

I-300 requires new buildings of 25,000 square feet or more to include green roofs, which help filter air and reduce temperatures. Existing buildings of the same size or larger that are redoing their roofs must include vegetation and solar panels. Builders can request an exemption that, if granted, would require a fee.

At the meeting in early April, Jill Jennings Golich with Community Planning and Development, the city department that oversees planning and sustainable building, said the initiative took language from a similar policy in Toronto and "didn't think through the unique challenges" that Denver presents. She noted that I-300 defines some terms differently than does the City of Denver, is inconsistent with some state laws, and charges the wrong city department to consider building code. A green roof and solar-panel combo could also increase construction costs by as much as 102 percent, she said.

Rietheimer says that the opposition in the stakeholder group, largely representatives of the building industry, have made similar complaints in their meetings. "I would agree with them," he says. "There are a lot of challenges."

The most contentious point has been how to handle green roofs on existing buildings; the city estimates that as many as 90 percent in Denver can't support green roofs.

So the stakeholder group has considered compromises, such as swapping certain requirements for more cost-efficient and practical yet still green ideas. For example, buildings that either physically cannot support green roofs or whose developers have successfully petitioned their way out of them can buy into energy-efficient programs and incorporate "white" roofs, or roofs painted white that reflect sunlight, while also using green space on the ground somewhere in the vicinity of the building.

The stakeholder group will meet through May, then start taking public comments and present its findings to the full Denver City Council. Any amendments to the initiative would require a two-thirds majority vote.

Rietheimer says the group is still working through the nitty-gritty, and that there's time to make any necessary changes.

"What we have agreed upon is if we can get the same benefits out of these existing buildings by some other means, then we're still fulfilling the intentions behind everything," he says. "The only thing I've really been fighting for is to keep the green spaces. That is a key element for water management and aesthetic value."

His Green Roof Initiative might have been perceived as radical when he brought it forward — indeed, it's one of the more stringent in the U.S. — but 53 percent of voters still sided with Rietheimer. And it's not hard to understand why: Denver continually ranks at the bottom of nearly every list of cities with the worst air quality.

Now that Rietheimer is a seasoned pro at changing city policy, he says he wants to use his skills to push other agendas.

"Sales-tax increases are a hot topic right now, and something I've been thinking about to help fund city parks," he says. "It almost seems like the time is now to get on the sales-tax-increase bandwagon."

With any future projects, he says he'll work more with city council  — though the last time around, any breakdowns in communication weren't exactly his fault.

"Before [the Green Roof Initiative], nobody gave me the time of day, and now they know who I am," Rietheimer concludes. "I'm hoping to use that to our advantage."

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