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Sustainable development law well-intended, but too vague and ambitious

Architect raises concerns over how government will implement law and its implications for construction industry as agencies have 18 months to review and adapt regulations


February 24, 2005
Copyright © 2005 CARIBBEAN BUSINESS. All Rights Reserved.

A local architect has raised concerns over the implementation of a relatively unknown piece of legislation that became law last September and could have a profound impact on the construction industry and Puerto Rico’s economy.

According to TRG Architects Founding Partner Eduardo Regis, the purpose of Law 267 of Sept. 10, 2004, known as the Public Policy Law on Sustainable Development, is the establishment of a public policy that fosters a desirable quality of life and the harmony of the policies, programs, and government activities relating to social, economic, and environmental aspects; aims Puerto Rico toward achieving its sustainable development and to the establishment of the Commission for the Sustainable Development of Puerto Rico.

"The law states that it is a continuing policy of the government of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, including its municipalities, and in cooperation with interested public and private organizations, the utilization of all means and practical measures, including technical and financial assistance and best practices and technology available to foster and promote the sustainable development of Puerto Rico, with human beings as the focal point of this development," Regis told CARIBBEAN BUSINESS.

As written, this law, like many others, said Regis, is too ambitious in its scope and too vague in details on how it will be implemented or its effects on the construction industry.

"The law is a big step, a good idea in which we see great opportunities, but one where we also see great challenges," said the TRG Architects founding partner. "To become effective, the law must define sustainable development and what it intends for Puerto Rico."

The law does give a clear definition of what sustainable development is, said Regis, as it only makes a vague reference to the efforts by the United Nations and other international organizations in addressing the issue since the 1970s.

"The law doesn’t establish what sustainable development is. It only provides the traditional definition set by the United Nations in its Stockholm Declaration of 1972, which states that sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," said Regis. "How do you apply this to the government, when it is giving 18 months to its agencies to conform to the law? There isn’t a clear and official definition and I think that’s important."

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the law reads, should move toward achieving a society based on a sustainable economy and a balanced development, the harmonization of its economic development with the restoration and protection of the environment and natural resources, and towards improving the quality of life of Puerto Ricans, where economic, social, and environmental goals are unified in the context of sustainable development.

"Since the 19th century, Puerto Rico’s economy has been nonself-sustainable. What’s more, if we make a quick diagnosis of Puerto Rico, we can say that all areas of Puerto Rico by definition are nonself-sustainable, including construction and agriculture," said the Harvard University graduate. "Now the government has a law stating that everything done from now has to be sustainable. That’s ambitious and it’s a very big challenge."

The law orders to the highest extent possible, the interpretation, implementation, and administration of all public policies, programs, plans, laws, rules and regulations, present and future executive orders, in strict conformity with the new public policy. In addition, all public agencies, departments, municipalities, corporations, and instrumentalities of the government must revise their current authority, administrative regulations, policies and procedures to determine if there are deficiencies or inconsistencies in these that would impede the total compliance of the law’s dispositions.

The new law also created the Commission for the Sustainable Development of Puerto Rico, ascribed to the Environmental Quality Board. The commission is composed of nine members, including the secretary of the Department of Economic Development & Commerce; secretary of the Department of Natural & Environmental Resources; secretary of the Department of Agriculture; president of the Planning Board; president of the Environmental Quality Board, which presides over the commission; and four representatives of the civil society appointed by the governor. The commission will prepare a report to the governor every year on its activities and the progress made toward achieving its goals.

Government agencies, public corporations, and municipalities have 18 months to report to the commission their findings and any measure or action that needs to be taken to adjust their authority and policies in conformity with the law’s intentions.

"First, we have the 18-month uncertainty when the agencies will supposedly be revising and reviewing their regulations. Secondly, who will the governor choose as representatives of the civil society and what assurances are there, that they’ll have the required expertise to decide what goes and what stays, and how it will affect the industry?" asked Regis, who doubted that representatives from the construction, banking, planning, and housing industries will have a say in the commission.

What effect, Regis wondered, will the 18-month regulations revision period have on his clients’ projects, his architectural practice, and on the agencies that issue the construction permits? He is mostly concerned the new law will become one more bureaucratic hurdle in the long permitting process if professional organizations don’t take a leadership role now and participate in the discussion process, as few people know about this new law.

"Now that there’s a new administration in place, this is the time to address the law’s inequities, noted Regis, adding that even with an abstract definition of sustainable development in place, initial steps can be taken toward achieving that goal.

"TRG Architects is one of the first firms in Puerto Rico to become a member of the U.S. Green Building Council, and we are waiting for other professional firms and institutions to join in order to form a local chapter in Puerto Rico," said Regis.

Regis said a sustainable development practice that could be implemented immediately by the government is to declare that from now on, all public buildings must comply with Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) standards, which is a national organization that certifies and issues guidelines on how to make a construction project more sustainable through technology, energy use, and the reuse of materials.

"We’ve had the good fortune to develop projects in Puerto Rico that although they don’t fully comply with LEED standards, come pretty close," noted Regis. One such project is Las Fuentes de Coamo residential project in Coamo, where no home faces another home across the street, as there is a green area between them.

This Caribbean Business article appears courtesy of Casiano Communications.
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