The City's Bureau of Sustainable Development and Commissioner Saltzman's office are working on a plan to get Portlanders to build green by fining projects that meet the building code rather than going above and beyond it to reduce carbon emissions. The idea is called a feebate - a wonky way to say: the city hands you a fee if you follow the code, a rebate if you go for higher green standards.

For building just to code, the city could fine a single family home several thousand dollars. A LEED silver (LEED is an Olympic medal-based ranking system for buildings determined by how much carbon they emit) building would get no fine at all and if your project is even better environmentally, the City gives you money. Big projects that go LEED could get a major payout - the Daily Journal of Commerce estimated the new 32-unit Mississippi Ave Lofts would receive $150,000 - $200,000 if it's built LEED gold. The idea is for the money pot to be self-sustaining. "People building just to code are funding the people who are building higher," explains Michael Armstrong, director of the City's Bureau of Sustainable Development.

Right now, only a slice of new buildings would escape the fees. Armstrong estimated that roughly 15% of single family homes and 23% of commercial projects built in 2006 were up to snuff environmentally.

"This should be a motivation for people, we really want people to build higher performing buildings, we don't want this to be a deal killer," says Armstrong. The trick is finding the sweet spot -- how hefty of fees would wind up hurting growth and exactly how many bags of money will be enough to get builders to go for green standards?

This whole idea came about because Oregon's one of the few states that sets all its building codes at a state level, rather than letting local areas decide their own standards. So, currently, Portland can't demand that builders get any more green than the state standards. Instead, it's up to the individual project designers to decide whether they want to building projects with low carbon emissions, the feebate is meant to tip the scales in favor of going green.

Once City's staff hashes out what they think is the right price for the fees and their bates, they'll ask for public comment - probably in August. If this is self-sustaining (meaning, if people are forced to pay in as much as the City pays out), I think it's making a weird loophole that charges people for following the law, but is a smart way to get people to build better projects. Low-carbon buildings aren't more expensive than regular buildings, especially if you plan to include the green features from the start. This would get people planning for LEED early on.