What Is ‘Low-Impact Development (LID)’?

Jon Quitslund

I expect that most people reading this post have at least a nodding acquaintance with the phrase ‘low-impact development’ and its acronym, but you may not have a ready definition, or know why the term is being bandied about here on Bainbridge these days. I’m eager to tell you why, and what a difference it will make when low-impact design standards are implemented.

Along with other municipalities in western Washington, Bainbridge Island has an obligation to the state (specifically to the Department of Ecology) to develop LID design standards for new development and infrastructure projects. This obligation is running concurrently with our Comp Plan update, and LID principles are pertinent to several elements in the Comp Plan.

I tend to think that LID standards, which will be introduced some months from now in a major revision of the Municipal Code, will constitute the leading edge in the all-important implementation of new policies that have been brought forward in the Comprehensive Plan. All the parties to the update process appear ready to change, in certain respects, what kind of development happens here in the future. The manifold impacts of development have to be brought under control.

LID, to quote the Wikipedia definition, “is a term used in Canada and the United States to describe a land planning and engineering design approach to manage stormwater runoff. LID emphasizes conservation and use of on-site natural features to protect water quality.”

The concept, and even the acronym, have been around us for more than a decade: toward the end of this post I’ll provide some historical perspective from a B I City Council meeting in 2005. I think the new standards will involve incremental rather than dramatic changes in the methods used to manage runoff. The new standards will, I trust, make it harder for developers to get away with projects and practices that never should have been permitted.

I have been in many meetings recently where the topic of LID design standards has come up. In the Comp Plan update, LID principles and standards are relevant to the implementation of policies in the Land Use, Environment, Water Resources, Transportation, and Housing elements.

A task force from the Public Works and Planning departments has been studying what will be needed in the new regulations and what parts of the Municipal Code need to be changed. The City Manager and Council will soon be seeking a consultant to draft an Ordinance that’s consistent with the Department of Ecology’s guidelines and the City Council’s policy directives.

In the Ad Hoc Committee concerned with preservation of significant trees and forested areas, we (three Council and two Planning Commission members) intend to make changes in several chapters of the Municipal Code, and it’s possible that the consultant’s mandate will be broadened to provide the Ad Hoc Committee’s agenda with expert support.

The connections may not be obvious, but managing stormwater runoff has a great deal to do with preservation of forested areas and the ecological integrity of soils, native vegetation, wetlands and streams, and the natural contours of our landscape.

The more clearing and road-building that’s done in the course of development, and the more water-shedding surfaces are imposed on the land, the more we stand to lose in the natural dynamism of the water cycle, the seasonal and long-term growth and decay of vegetation, the healthy microbial life that supports everything around us, and the filtered light and excellent air quality that our fragmented community forest affords us.

In urban and suburban areas, effective stormwater management has to rely heavily on technological fixes, and they won’t be irrelevant here on Bainbridge, but I don’t want to see technology (curtain drains, retention basins and underground tanks, soil amendments, mitigation strategies and the like) offered as an alternative when the lay of the land already indicates where roads and houses belong, and how much of the natural landscape can and should be left undisturbed.

LID principles emphasize the need to control pollutants – which for us, if we’re not careful, end up in Puget Sound. Effective infiltration – aquifer recharge – is another LID objective, and it’s essential here: the more water we can retain and recover, the better for all of us.

Low-impact development regulations may focus on stormwater management, but why stop there? If in other respects development is high-impact, what have we gained? I was delighted to learn that in England, the phrase ‘low-impact development’ carries a broader and deeper meaning: “development that through its low negative environmental impact either enhances or does not significantly diminish environmental quality” (Wikipedia again, quoting the ecologist Simon Fairlie). Such development is conceived as in all respects antithetical to suburban sprawl.

The following terms describe LID as practiced in England: “locally adapted, diverse and unique; based on renewable resources; of an appropriate scale; visually unobtrusive; enhances biodiversity; increases public access to open space; generates little traffic; linked to sustainable livelihoods; co-ordinated by a management plan.” (These phrases summarize the views in a 2009 paper by Larch Maxey, “The Future in Our Hands: Low Impact Development and Sustainability Transitions.”)

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Which brings me to a transition in this post: I want to introduce some choice paragraphs from a piece that I wrote for the Bainbridge Islander more than ten years ago, to provide some perspective on where we are today.

Sorting through the deep clutter in my library and writing space, I came across a clipping from November, 2005 – back when I was writing a bi-weekly column for the Kitsap Sun and the Islander. I recognized back then that “sustainability” had already achieved buzzword status in many people’s minds.

I wanted to insist, au contraire, “that it’s not just an idea, nor is it a lifestyle you can put on like a down vest. The word denotes a belief system, and an incredibly long list of choices and ‘best practices.’” Acknowledging resistance to those choices and changes, I went on to say, “The goal of sustainability calls into question much that we hold dear, and any threat to our customary comforts is likely to prompt the instinctual responses of fight or flight.”

I ended the column on an ‘up’ note, and imagine my surprise when I saw a reference to ‘low-impact development’!

I quoted Wendell Berry: “We must learn to grow like a tree, not like a fire.” And I went on to say this:

“The City Council on Bainbridge may be getting this message. In a recent meeting, Public Works staff briefed the Council on proposed revisions to the ordinance governing stormwater management. Along the way, the Council was told that ‘low-impact development’ practices would be encouraged, not required. Such practices are not yet ‘widely used.’

“Council members reacted with a crescendo of concern. ‘Why not lead the way?’ ‘Where have you guys been?’ ‘LID should be mandated.’ Uncharacteristically, I found myself siding with the Council rather than City staff.”

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So there you have some perspective on LID principles from ten years ago, with a different Public Works staff and a different City Council. And the need for improved stormwater management is ten years more urgent. It’s about time to get it done right. Fortunately, these days, Public Works and the City Council are generally on the same page. Stay tuned.

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