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Town Meeting Preview – Part 2

October 12, 2011

A proposed addition to the town building code that would force all new buildings in town to be more energy efficient is expected to be the most significant hot-button issue when Fall Annual Town Meeting convenes next Monday evening. Known as the stretch code, the proposed regulation would require all new residential and many new commercial buildings, in addition to residential additions and renovations, be 20% more energy-efficient than current town building codes require.

The state allows, but does not require, cities and towns across Massachusetts to adopt the stretch code on top of their existing building regulations. As of June 20, 95 out of 351 municipalities across the state had adopted the code. Although no neighboring towns have enacted it, Easton, Dedham, and Medway are a few of the area towns that have it in place.

Besides the obvious green aspect of it, town officials are pushing the adoption of the code so that Walpole will qualify for a “Green Community” designation from the state. That designation would qualify Walpole for state grant money to fund various energy projects and efficiency upgrades. The designation would also require the town to buy only fuel-efficient vehicles for its vehicle fleet (which, in Walpole’s case, can be better described as a growing automobile collection), and require a 20% reduction in town energy use within five years.

A companion Town Meeting article, Article 2, will create a new zoning district for a solar farm on Route 1A, another effort to move Walpole towards becoming a “Green Community.”

But the proposed regulation is generating some negative buzz in the local construction industry. Local builders like John Walsh, of Walsh Brothers Building Company, are concerned about the impact the code will have on the already-suffering local construction industry. Walsh, a former Finance Committee member, is especially troubled that town officials haven’t been addressing the financial impact of the new policy. “This could be very costly and nobody is discussing the potential cost,” Walsh said.

According to estimates from the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, the code would increase construction costs by about $3,000, but most of that cost would be offset by savings in energy costs and rebates from utility companies.

But Walsh and other builders aren’t convinced that the one-time cost will be that low.

The National Association of Home Builders reports that for every $1 increase in regulatory cost for a builder, the price of a house to its final customer actually increases by $1.25, making the cost even higher than some estimates may suggest.

The Home Builders Association of Massachusetts, which opposes the adoption of the stretch code, said many builders already construct homes with maximum energy efficiency in mind and don’t need an extra requirement from the government. The group argues that customers should have the final say in whether they want their new home or business to be more energy-efficient.

The initial expense of complying with the stretch code is a cost even the town would have to cover. The Walpole Master Plan Implementation Committee recently recommended a set of ambitious new proposals that would situate a new senior center on Robbins Road and a new police station on Washington Street. But voters have shown in recent years they don’t quickly favor tax overrides for new town buildings, so it may not be in the town’s best interest to increase the initial costs of those buildings.

Taxpayers will be forced to hand over more of their money for new town facilities than they would in a town without the stretch code, even if it means energy savings down the road. Voters have shown they are more concerned with the immediate cost of an override than about the perceived long-term savings in tax dollars from that override (see Walpole Woodworkers project), so the town can’t afford to lose even a shred of override support simply because of an energy code that drives the cost up.

The town would also have to pay for the increased expense of inspectional services in ensuring compliance with the code, but these costs are unknown.

Walsh also argues that the new rules will put the town at an immediate competitive disadvantage in the eyes of builders and their clients, because no other bordering towns have the policy in place. Local construction companies are already required to comply with 13 different permits and fees to build a new home, according to Walsh.

The contention over the issue is apparent. The Walpole Finance Committee voted 6-6 last month, a tie vote, on whether to recommend the code’s implementation. The Board of Selectmen also declined to vote on the measure last week until they could gain more information about it.

The stretch code has good intentions, and its goal of reducing energy costs and energy use overall is admirable. In a better economy, if the town wasn’t in such dire need of new town facilities and if the town wasn’t trying so hard to attract new businesses to town, adopting the code might make sense.

But the town – and governments at all levels – might consider adhering to the concept that admirable initiatives – like being green and helping the earth – shouldn’t be mandated. Energy-efficient pursuits should be optional. If a homeowner or builder wants their house to be energy-efficient, they can easily get a house with those features. New homeowners and business owners should be given the choice of whether they want their new house or business to be green. They should not have it shoved down their throats because government supposedly knows best and, oh by the way, will also cash in on a nice state grant program.

If the town wants to be green, it doesn’t need a state designation and a state grant to do it, at the expense of local construction companies and their clients. Being a “Green Community” carries nothing more than a good feeling and access to a grant to justify the continued existence of our Economic Development & Grants Officer.

The town can, and should, fund its own energy-efficient upgrades, as it does not need a grant or an official designation to do so. Since the one-time cost of energy upgrades is supposed to be paid off over time with energy savings anyway, it is unclear why the town isn’t already spending the money on these uses. If the intent is to save money down the road, fiscal conservatives throughout town might actually be in favor of one-time expenses for energy upgrades. But town officials have spent so much time talking about the potential grant money available and the possibility of preserving the full-time Economic Development & Grants Officer position that they haven’t bothered considering this option.

Since one of the requirements of being designated a “Green Community” is that Walpole must buy only energy-efficient vehicles for its fleet, the probable result will be that the town will use that designation and the accompanying grant money as an excuse to purchase new town vehicles when no new vehicles are needed. The piper will be paid at some point – the state grant comes from state funds that all Walpole taxpayers pay into through their income, sales, and meals taxes. The town will ask for state funding and then buy new town vehicles for no reason other than because the cash is there. At a time when the town (not to mention the state, too) faces serious budget challenges ahead, the town shouldn’t be encouraged to buy more vehicles, no matter who is paying for it.

The town should be buying energy-efficient vehicles for its vehicle fleet anyway. With energy-efficient vehicles becoming more and more affordable, it is shocking the town isn’t already buying them. A new Toyota Prius hybrid is very affordable and gets out-of-this-world gas mileage. Yet the town hasn’t purchased even one. The Town Administrator continues to drive a gas guzzler SUV to and from his home in Bellingham. The gas, and tax dollars, he is burning through on that daily commute could be reduced significantly simply with the purchase of a Toyota Prius. There is no legitimate reason why a town official who isn’t involved with public safety operations should need an SUV and not a smaller vehicle.

Most troubling is the fact that some local builders believe the town hasn’t had enough time to discuss the stretch code and that town officials are trying to ram it down residents’ throats with little public input. Town Hall already did this before, with the infamous biotech disaster of 2010, in which town officials tried to shove biotech all the way to the floor of Town Meeting without bothering to keep an open line with the public or even with other town boards. The result was that at the last minute it went up in flames because town officials realized it did not address some important provisions that probably could have been resolved had the town actually taken its time on it. The arrogant attitude of town officials on that issue also strengthened solid opposition to it from residents.

Even though the stretch code and “Green Communities” initiative has been in the works for a long time at Town Hall, it wasn’t until recently that the public at large even knew the issue was racing towards a conclusion at Fall Town Meeting next week.

Town Meeting should reject the stretch code because there is no reason to become a “Green Community” and impose new mandates on our builders merely to get access to a state bank account. The town should approach the issue of being green cautiously, wary of the costs and ever-watchful of how residents and taxpayers will be affected by it. The stretch code could be a good addition to our building code in the future, but it seems clear that local builders aren’t ready for its effects and the town as a whole doesn’t need to become a “Green Community” in the first place. Green technology is becoming cheaper as the industry continues to develop, and there is no reason to race to implement it at break-neck speed.

NOTE: 180 will provide live, exclusive Town Meeting coverage and commentary starting at 7:30 PM on Monday on our Twitter feed here.

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