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Postman on Politics

Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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March 25, 2008 8:25 AM

Did the eco-arsonists win?

Posted by David Postman

After arson destroyed Snohomish County’s “Street of Dreams” early this month, The Seattle Times and other news organizations reported on debates over green-building standards and high density development in rural parts of the county. Those were the debates of polite society, not eco-arson. But the concerns of neighborhood groups and environmentalists were said to echo the sentiments scrawled by arsonists at the model homes.

The Times reported March 4:

Arsonists drew attention to the issue when they torched four houses in the development early Monday. They left a sign slamming "RCDs" — rural cluster developments — as anything but green.

And in a March 12 front-page story headlined, “The fight over what ‘green’ means, ” The Times said:

Even before the cork flooring and reclaimed timbers stopped smoking, the fires had reignited an already smoldering debate in a rapidly growing region struggling to find and keep its Pugetopian identity.

The search is on for a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for the green consumer in the real-estate market, and the debate about what's truly green brings an answer from every corner.

The coverage focused on the environmental aspects of the model homes because of a banner allegedly left behind by the arsonists. It said:

Built Green? Nope black! McMansions in RCDs r not green. ELF

ELF are the initials of the Earth Liberation Front, a group that in the past - but not so far in this case - has claimed responsibility for arson attacks.

To see arson spur any sort of civil debate struck Todd Myers as more confirmation of the liberal bias he says stains the media’s environmental coverage. Myers is a Republican political consultant and former top aide to GOP Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland. He now oversees environmental matters for the conservative Washington Policy Center. He wrote at his WPC blog:

Today's Seattle Times has an article about the debate over what constitutes "green." The debate was sparked by the firebombing of homes in Snohomish county by ecoterrorists. The fact that such an act would lead to what some believe is a reasoned debate is truly appalling. I don't think the people who did this could have asked for a better response or better placement in the newspaper.

Did the eco-arsonists win? Does questioning the industry’s “Build Green” program and Snohomish County’s zoning laws give ELF, or whoever lit the fire, what they were hoped would come from their arson and the message left behind?

The Times has not been alone in following up the arson with stories about the underlying environmental issues referred to in the crude ELF communique left behind. The P-I wrote about rural cluster developments a few days after the fire.

It didn't take a note from arsonists to send a message to Snohomish County officials that people are unhappy with rural cluster developments.

Those subdivisions -- which allow builders to cluster additional homes on large rural lots in exchange for leaving open space -- drew complaints soon after they began mushrooming two years ago.

There was also commentary in the P-I knocking the Street of Dreams after the fires. Columnist Dorothy Parvaz, who had earlier written strong criticism of the over-the-top dream homes, wrote after the Snohomish arson,

But what of this fire?

I don't believe a 4,000-square-foot home built over an aquifer, surrounded by wetlands, can be truly "green." I also think burning one to make a "green" point is boneheaded (and criminal). There's more to the public response, though. These homes are built to represent the American Dream, and they're open to the public not just to attract buyers, but to fan the, um, flames of desire. It's the ultimate in middle-class real estate porn -- the message isn't subtle: These homes are for winners. You want to be a winner, don'tcha?

And P-I columnist Cathy Sorbo wrote that the arson seemed counterproductive. But, she wrote:

emotionally and logistically speaking, for a target you can't do better.

If ELF-y types did indeed set those fires, they are telling us that it's not the homes or the ideals behind efficient living they are displeased with, it's where the homes are being built. When they use fire to destroy their targets, not only does it slap the general news-watching Xanax-laden public into "awake" mode, but it begins a discourse about ecological concern. Or lack of. Multimillion-dollar homes are being built while the masses suffer through foreclosure and debt hell. Development displaces nature while a few individuals and companies profit. It's enough to make a firestartin' eco-political extremist a little bit angry.

At The Times, two post-arson stories about “green” home construction were written by reporter Lynda Mapes. There was “Homebuilders, critics disagree about what construction deserves environmental label
on March 4 and the story on the 12th, The fight over what "green" means, which prompted Myers’ post.

I talked to Mapes and Myers about the arson and the stories that followed. Mapes said there was discussion in the newsroom about what the right approach was in writing about issued raised by the arson. There was agreement that the paper should not “stifle the very public debate it raises.”

At the same time, Mapes didn’t want to lionize ELF and wanted “to be careful as a writer not to say, ‘Hurray for them for raising this issue.’”

Mapes’ stories focused on “Built Green,” the homebuilding industry’s program for environmentally conscious construction and looked at issues such as “green” certified lumber. On March 12 she wrote about one home destroyed in the fire that had been “the first home in Snohomish County to earn a five-star rating as a Built Green home.”

But with 4,750 square feet, a four-car garage and a location in a rural area where subdivisions aren't supposed to sprawl, was it really green?

In an earlier story she wrote:

Green building is no different from a host of other industries suddenly greening conventional products to serve a public that still wants it all — but now wants to feel good about it, too.

Mainstream builders say a greener suburban McMansion is important progress. "I like to think of everything in terms of incremental change," said Grey Lundberg, president of Grey Lundberg and CMI Homes of Bellevue and builder of the Urban Lodge. "You can't just wipe the slate clean. These home are still going to get built, and we want them built right."

But their critics say that attitude is just consumers kidding themselves — with developers happy to help.

Reader response was varied. Mapes got e-mail thanking her for “questioning this green-wash stuff” to critics who said, “How can you give these guys any attention?’” Mapes told me:

As a newspaper we’re never silent, though. I think it was a very provocative debate and … one that is far from over.

Myers knows newspapers are never silent. And he often doesn’t like what they say in their environmental coverage.

He was unhappy with Mapes’ story on Built Green for a couple of reasons. (You can see them all here.) But the central complaint was about the paper’s decision to reality-check the Built Green program singled out by the arsonists, but not give the same scrutiny to other claimed environmentally sound building programs.

As Mapes pointed out in one story:

There is no single standard for green construction. The state has its own standard for buildings built with public money. The Master Builders have a Built Green program in counties across the state. And there are many others, from Energy Star Homes Northwest to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings to construction blessed by the American Lung Association.

LEED is popular among environmentalists while Built Green is the program designed by the Master Builders.

And Myers says it’s wrong for reporters to scrutinize Built Green while “other systems with clear flaws get no scrutiny.” Myers has written critically about LEED before.

It seems to be something more is going on than simply an analysis of the merits,” he said. He says if newspapers can’t cover the issue of green building more comprehensively, it’d be better to leave that out of coverage of the arson.

Either you don’t address these issues because it’s an arson, or you address those issues and every other one, including the ones the enviros like. But you can’t only do the ones addressed by the fire bombers.

Holding industry to a higher standard than environmental groups, Myers said, “is a huge problem with environmental journalism in general.”

Even before the Snohomish County fires, Mapes had a story in the works about environmentally certified lumber. As often happens, the story then morphed to capture the news and issues raised by the arson. Mapes said in a follow-up e-mail with me:

When the arson happened, I saw a teachable moment on the whole topic of what's green and the uneasiness around it as this area wrestles with its changing sense of place and self. Are we Pugetopia? Can we be Pugetopia and award top environmental honors to mega mansions in Malby outside the urban growth area? Does it make any difference to build a mansion with certified wood if it's still a mansion?

This was the right time to land a story about those issues.

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