Clean Water Protection, Business-Friendly Development Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Almost 60 years ago, my two business partners (and mentors) founded a real-estate development company with a passion for designing and developing alongside nature.

Today, the legacy continues, and our company prides itself in creating low-impact, sustainable communities that integrate alternative energy and environmental solutions. Our goal is to seamlessly integrate the built environment into the native land form, rather than the other way around, and leave trees and other natural features of the land intact.

For decades, there has been a false belief that business-friendly development interests and environmental water protection are at odds with one another. In the 21st century, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only is the market now demanding more environmentally responsible development, but the real estate industry is innovating in such a way that green design is more affordable and cost-efficient.

As development evolves, it’s important for the government to keep up. We’ve seen the government incentivize eco-friendly cost-savings such as green infrastructure for water quality management, incentives for solar panels and green retrofit investment grants. Likewise, it’s important that the government support water and land regulatory policies that allow for innovation within real-estate development.

For many states, environmentally friendly developers have been faced with a difficult regulatory hurdle over the past several years. In 2015, the Obama administration and the Environmental Protection Agency redefined the extent of “Waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act and authorized federal agencies to regulate most bodies of water across the United States — even small bodies of water that were already being successfully managed by local and state governments.

The rule included dry lands, like ditches and gullies that are only sometimes wet. This was inefficient and unnecessarily expensive.

I’m fortunate to operate in Florida, where our state successfully challenged the federal government and blocked the rule’s implementation. Although I didn’t face redundant requirements caused by the revised definition, I felt bad for my developer colleagues across America who regularly dealt with complex regulatory frameworks that slowed innovation, including green improvements.

With implementation of the water rule in 2015, it became harder to get approved for projects, even when they were sustainable land-preserving projects. Developers spend millions of dollars in the mazes of regulation, and many of our federal applications take years for the EPA to approve. The problem often isn’t the actual regulation, but the expansive bureaucracy that occurs at the federal level.

Barriers in federal regulation discourage builders and developers from creating thoughtful and sustainable communities with low environmental impacts. The rules drive people to develop in upland areas and to cut trees. This results in higher home prices. We should be making environmentally friendly homes and communities more affordable for Americans, not less.

This does not mean no regulation at all; in fact, we’ve found environmental regulations are integral to helping us understand the context of a community’s needs. It means allowing states and local governments to regulate their own small bodies of water, more efficiently and more knowledgeably than regulators in the federal government.

This is why my family and I, and the entire building industry, welcomed the repeal and replacement of that 2015 WOTUS rule by the EPA. Last month, the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers announced their new WOTUS rule to clear up the confusion and bureaucracy that small businesses have to navigate with water management jurisdiction.

The new rule, called the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, reformed the policy so that regulation of land that is sometimes wet and areas with small bodies of water should be left to local and state regulators because they know the areas well and can work more efficiently with local builders. The new rule outlined the difference between federally protected wetlands and state protected wetlands, while reaffirming America’s water protections.

“Green” and “sustainable” have become familiar buzzwords over the past decade, but we have to consider what they really mean when it comes to our land and homes. Are we creating communities that protect natural systems, honor the local heritage and promote local economies? Are we integrating the key elements of energy, water, waste and food? Are we allowing for pedestrian, bicycle and alternative vehicle access?

In order to accomplish this, we need commonsense logic that says the federal government should focus on regulating permanent waterways such as lakes, rivers and streams, while leaving regulation of water in ditches, streams, parking lots and sometimes-wet areas to states and localities. We have seen that state and local governments can implement environmental protections that adequately support sustainable efforts with America’s builders, farmers and manufacturers.

The average American moves once every five years, often “outgrowing” their houses, jobs or neighborhoods and seeking out something better. I envision communities where people want to stay — where they want to live, work, raise their families and eventually retire.

This starts with beautiful green development that integrates natural landforms with the manmade. As a country, we have to support policies that make this possible and realize that clean water protection and business-friendly development are not mutually exclusive. We can and must do both with the proper balance of federal and local regulation.


Doug Davis is CEO of Fletcher Davis Company in St. Augustine, Fla., and a member of the National Association of Home Builders and Waters Advocacy Coalition.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.

Morning Consult