‘Voluntary’ green building ordinance clears first reading
By Donna Beth Weilenman
Benicia City Council reached a compromise Tuesday night that salvaged an ordinance that would encourage greater energy saving and water conserving steps during the expansion or renovation of local homes.
With Council Member Mark Hughes absent, the panel was facing a 2-2 tie vote that would have dropped the ordinance from consideration, even though city staff and members of the Community Sustainability Commission had recommended approval.
The panel compromised by making the requirements voluntary for nine months, during which data would be collected on how many projects incorporated the recommended conservation improvements.
The ordinance’s effectiveness would be evaluated later, the Council decided.
The modified version narrowly passed at 3-1, with Vice Mayor Alan Schwartzman, who still had concerns about the proposal, casting the sole negative vote.
Meanwhile, during that time, more opportunities for rebates and incentives may become available to Solano County residents who choose to incorporate energy and water saving measures in their homes, said Charles Rieger, executive director of the Solano Center for Business Innovation.
The ordinance, introduced on first reading and public hearing, will become effective if approved on second reading at a future meeting.
Schwartzman and Council Member Tom Campbell said they couldn’t endorse the ordinance as originally written, because it mandated the improvements when construction projects added 600 or more square feet to a home or the work was valued greater than $20,000.
Those thresholds would have required 2 percent of the construction cost to be spent on any of a variety of listed conservation projects, such as increasing ceiling insulation, adding weather stripping, sealing furnace ducts, replacing bathroom fixtures with low water flow model, and replacing incandescent lights and single-pane windows.
The intent of the ordinance was to enhance the California Green Building Standards Code that became effective Jan. 1, said Charlie Knox, director of Public Works and Community Development Department.
He said local businesses carried the materials needed for those improvements.
Council Member Tom Campbell said he liked the ordinance, particularly since the projects could end up saving homeowners money on future bills. He said he had done many of the suggested “green” projects in his own home.
“I agree with the environmental issues,” he said. But he worried that making them requirements would create a backlash.
“People feel you’re trying to shove something down their throats,” he said. Rather than “required,” he asked, “Is there a softer word?”
Schwartzman concurred, saying, “There’s a lot of great ideas, but I have a problem with ‘required.’”
He suggested Benicia has an “educated populace” that already was incorporating energy and water saving projects in their homes.
Saying he agreed with the proposal’s “shop local” aspect, Schwartzman pointed out that the ordinance would add more requirements at a time that construction industry was suffering from the poor economy.
However, others worried that watering down the ordinance by making the conservation steps optional would make it harder for Benicia to achieve goals set in its Climate Action Plan and mandated by the state.
Council Member Mike Ioakimedes said making conservation mandatory compared to laws that banned selling cigarettes to children and required the wearing of seat belts.
But the ordinance’s subject went beyond whether an action should be “required” or “encouraged.”
“We’re talking about waste here,” said Council Member Mike Ioakimedes. “Energy consumption is a collective action. The more you consume, the less others can.”
He called being wasteful “the arrogance of consumption.” Being able to afford it “doesn’t make it right.”
He answered those who had written they had the right to run water from their hoses, so long as they could pay their bills.
“You don’t have the right to waste water, even if you can pay for it,” he said.
“It’s disrespectful to those without water.”
Mayor Elizabeth Patterson suggested voluntary measures had not been as effective as needed. She cited recycling programs with which she’s been involved since 1967 that did not avert current problems with landfills.
While saying, “No one wants to be onerous or demanding,” she added, “You finally come to judgement day.”
Concerning the ordinance, she added, “I think this is one of those moments.”
Constance Beutel, vice chair person of the Community Sustainability Commission, reminded the Council that the measures included in the ordinance would support the Climate Action Plan, which the Council approved in 2009.
She told how city-authorized voluntary energy and water audits had helped residents save money on their power and water bills, but added that more homes could have been examined if the procedure had been required.
“We have so many homes to retrofit. It’s not the time to defer.”
She said she didn’t see an additional 2 percent expense on conservations measures as “onerous.”
Other measures are mandated, too, she said, such as strapping water heaters in place for safety during earthquakes.
Jon Van Landschoot concurred, saying American citizens routinely are “required to do a lot you don’t want to do.”
He suggested that when conservation measures are encouraged, rather than required, they’re ignored.
Grant Cooke, chief executive officer of Sustainable Energy Associates, called the change “a small ordinance,” and said mandating the requirements was ‘a question of leadership.”
He acknowledged California as one of the more progressive states in green building, but said “we’re not coming close” to work being done by Scandinavia and other countries.
Instead of making the additional work voluntary, he said, “You should enhance it, cheer it and recommend they do more.”
One resident, Ellen Kolowich, also preferred having the measures required, saying it would simplify matters for homeowners who may feel overwhelmed during home construction projects.
Tony Shannon said he expanded his home from 960 square feet to 2,000 square feet, but by incorporating conservation elements in his home, he’s not only cut his utility bills in half, his enlarged home is more comfortable.
“I’m absolutely for this. If you haven’t done it, it’s amazing what you save,” he said.
He added, “Sometimes you have to mandate it.”
But Larry Fullington said he didn’t equate leadership with mandates. “Beating people over the head isn’t leadership.”
Karen Burns, a retired teacher, said such mandates would be a hardship on those with fixed incomes. She said her 1949 house has few such conservation elements, but her monthly power bill is only about $40. “It’s all I can afford,” she said.
“Those who can afford it, do it. I can’t afford it.”