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Fenty Seeks ‘Green’ Help for Small Businesses

Washington, D.C., could enter an era of carbon-neutral operations, reusable storm water and energy-efficient fixtures if Congress will create incentives to complement the city’s ongoing efforts, Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) said Wednesday.

Fenty laid out the city’s efforts to make development “green” at a House Small Business Committee hearing, encouraging lawmakers to provide federal tax incentives and grants for businesses to revamp their energy practices.

“I can tell you that the federal dollars that do come down for taxpayers are paid attention to by small businesses,” Fenty said.

Burgeoning economic development in the city already has spurred environmental consciousness. The new Washington Nationals baseball stadium soon will be the only stadium in the country to be certified green by the U.S. Green Building Council. Sprawling development along the neglected Anacostia River will have to follow strict environmental standards. And the D.C. Green Building Act is forcing many city and private buildings to improve their energy practices in the next five years.

But small businesses are a different story. Fenty and Santa Barbara, Calif., Mayor Marty Blum, who also testified at Wednesday’s hearing, said many small-business owners rent, meaning tax incentives that are tied to the property are useless to them. They also have less money than big developers and sometimes cannot afford the initial costs of energy efficiency, they said.

Changing the law to force such businesses to follow green practices can go only so far, Fenty said.

“We’re in the business of spurring economic development,” he said, “so you got to keep sticks to a minimum and incentives to a maximum.”

D.C. is using a bit of both. On Oct. 1, all new city-owned developments — no matter what size — will have to follow certain environmental standards, said George Hawkins, acting director of the District Department of the Environment. In 2008, city officials hope to change the building code, making everyone accountable for better practices. The city also is experimenting with incentives: It recently gave 16 grants to businesses to install renewable energy generation technologies. That $250,000 came from the Renewable Energy Trust Fund, which is funded by Pepco ratepayers. Every recipient is using it differently, and city officials hope to find out which are the most successful, Hawkins said.

“We have a lot of flowers blooming, and we’ll pick the best one,” Hawkins said. Fenty said after the committee hearing that he hopes to continue developing incentive programs.

But officials need money to experiment further with different technologies, and Hawkins hopes lawmakers will consider offering block grants so cities have the ability to determine what works best. Although the federal government does offer grants for research, they tend to be too restricting, he said.

“We’ve got to be like the private sector,” he said. “Cities are hotbeds of innovation.”