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Oh, What A Site

SITES project participants talk sustainable landscape certification

Kayak paddlers, Kayak Beach ABOVE: Paddlers at Kayak Beach, Scenic Hudson's Long Dock Park. Photo by Scenic Hudson.

In Beacon, New York, the past two summers have offered what you might expect from a Hudson River town. Hundreds of visitors and residents can be found each day at Scenic Hudson's Long Dock Park kayaking, canoeing and learning to fish in the river while others picnic, sunbathe and watch wildlife from its banks. As little as two years ago, however, the Dutchess County site was an entirely different scene.

A critical 19th-century transportation link between New England and points west, Long Dock once contained a rail ferry terminal and an oil storage facility but had become a contaminated, ecologically degraded industrial site closed off to the public.

“There were Do-Not-Enter signs everywhere,” says Margery Groten of nonprofit organization Scenic Hudson, which began the long planning process to restore public access to this portion of the river through Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park nearly 20 years ago. This month, the park became one of the eight pilot projects newly certified by the Sustainable SITES Initiative™ (SITES™) for its sustainable site design, construction and maintenance.

Twenty-three projects have achieved SITES certification since 2012 through an extensive pilot study that tested an initial 2009 version of the nation’s first rating system for sustainable landscapes. The system was developed with the input of leading sustainability experts, scientists and design professionals by a partnership among the Wildflower Center, American Society of Landscape Architects and United States Botanic Garden.

This fall, SITES will extend the opportunity to achieve SITES certification beyond the pilot program by making the SITES v2 Rating System and Reference Guide available to the public. SITES applicants can earn up to 250 points through credits that address sustainable approaches such as soil restoration, water conservation and the use of recycled materials. Certified projects are awarded a one-, two-, three- or four-star rating based on the number of points achieved.

Scenic Hudson Sunset ABOVE: Sunset at Trakas' Beacon Point, Scenic Hudson Long Dock Park. Photo by Robert Rodriguez, Jr..

Landscape architects Reed Hilderbrand worked with Scenic Hudson over several years to design the park. Scenic Hudson’s senior project manager, Margery Groten, had just completed the design with Gary Hilderbrand, Chris Moyles and Michelle Crowley of Reed Hilderbrand when they learned of the SITES pilot study in 2010. They understood that the certification process would be challenging due to the complexity of the project itself — a contaminated site covered in invasive species and subject to extreme flooding during storm surges — and the diversity of stakeholders, such as the Army Corps of Engineers, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation and local agencies.

And although it was challenging to track down documents corresponding with a decade’s worth of information, Groten and Crowley consider the process to have been well worth it because of the recognition for their efforts to restore native plant wetlands, reuse materials, nourish soils, buffer the site from the impacts of flooding and open the site for public use.

A recent survey showed that 85 percent of respondents are interested in SITES™ certification for their projects.

SITES is intended to do for landscape sustainability what LEED® certification did for green building. “Before SITES, anyone could say that their landscape was sustainable because there was no comprehensive set of national performance metrics to follow nor rating system in place to prove it,” says SITES director Danielle Pieranunzi, who is based at the Wildflower Center. She applauds dedicated pilot projects for helping SITES create an enhanced rating system in SITES v2 that allows for more flexibility and streamlining of the credit documentation.

Other newly certified projects are Blue Hole Regional Park in Wimberley, Texas; Harris County WCID 132’s Water Conservation Center in Spring, Texas; American University School for International Service in Washington, D.C.; Bat Cave Draw and Visitor’s Center at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, N.M.; Mesa Verde Visitor and Research Center at Mesa Verde National Park, Colo.; George “Doc” Cavalliere Park in Scottsdale, Az.; and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory Research Support Facility in Golden, Colo.

Entrance to the Bat Cave ABOVE: Natural entrance to the cave, Bat Cave Draw and Visitor Center at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Photo by NPS Photo.

SITES credit areas are broad enough that applicants can pick and choose what fits their particular project. Newly certified Bat Cave Draw and Visitor Center at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, for example, concentrated its application on credits that recognized its use of plants from 100 percent local genetic stock. That meant making sure that thousands of individual plants were grown from locally collected seeds or cuttings. The project team re-vegetated areas that included a 1940s-era parking lot area that was the source of contaminated runoff such as motor oil and antifreeze affecting cavern pools. They also replanted areas adjacent to the visitor center and the park’s entrance road.

Jessica Brown with the National Park Service served as project specialist for re-vegetation and with Lisa Benson of Landmark Design, Inc. helped manage the SITES application process. Brown describes how the team made sure to collect enough seed within similar areas to the project site and salvaged 1,200 plants that would have been destroyed by development at other sites.

Brown, working for NPS out of its Denver office on national park re-vegetation and restoration projects throughout the country, says SITES principles fit within NPS’ mission to preserve parks for future generations. “Even for those not seeking certification, SITES provides a blueprint for how to develop and manage a site sustainably,” says Brown. When the SITES v2 Rating System is released this fall, those interested in learning more about the criteria for getting sustainable landscapes certified can download the free rating system from www.sustainablesites.org.

Benson advises those who are seeking certification to start early. “If you can, start during your project’s planning process. That way, you can choose the credits that you are aiming for and make sure you keep track of the required information from the beginning.”

Bat Cave Draw salvage operations ABOVE: Plant salvage operations underway at Bat Cave Draw and Visitor Center at Carlsbad Caverns. Photo by NPS Photo.

Scenic Hudson, which has a 50-year history of creating or improving more than 60 parks and protecting more than 30,000 acres, has adopted SITES principles for all new parks and preserves that it develops. Of its most ambitious project to date,  Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park, Groten says, “We hope that it can now serve as a model for how all landscape development — not just park development — can be done along the Hudson River.”

Groten and Crowley are most proud of the degree to which the park allows people access to the river. They agree that of all the SITES credit areas to which Long Dock Park applied, it was the SITES human health and well-being category where all of the work appeared to coalesce. Groten says, “Using the right sustainable materials allows the park to endure for public use and caring for the once-degraded soils ensures that the park is now healthy for human use. Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park will educate people about sustainability for decades to come.”

Story by Christina Kosta Procopiou

* The terms “partner” and “partnership” as used herein to refer to the Sustainable Sites Initiative shall not refer to a legal partnership, joint venture or other transaction or creation of other legal entity, but rather it shall refer to a collaborative effort between independent autonomous legal entities.

© 2016 Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center