New Martha's Vineyard Commission energy policy would raise costs
The Martha's Vineyard Commission recently voted unanimously to adopt an energy policy, to be used to evaluate and set energy efficiency targets for projects referred for review as developments of regional impact (DRI).
The policy's potential financial impact dominated discussion during a public hearing on December 4, as seen in videotape aired on MVTV. However, the commissioners concluded that although the policy will add costs to building projects, long-term energy savings should offset them.
The commissioners also questioned whether the energy subcommittee sought comment from architects, builders, contractors, and the public in drafting the policy. Commission members agreed to adopt the policy as a work in progress. "If Martha's Vineyard is going to move towards regulations on energy, this might be a very useful first step, because remember, this is a policy, it's not a regulation," said Martha's Vineyard Commission executive director Mark London. "So we can adopt this policy, we can try it over the coming year, and then when the time comes for us or for towns to adopt real regulations, we will have, like, tested it in the field."
Subject to debate
In opening the hearing, Martha's Vineyard Commission chairman Douglas Sederholm of Chilmark said, "I will say one thing that was mentioned to me by a member of the public today, which was he asked that the commission consider whether this current economic climate is the appropriate time to be adopting an energy and environmental building policy that may increase construction costs."
"So I just repeat that," he said, explaining in retrospect, "I did not think at the time that if one thinks about this at the macro level, the same argument can be made about climate change, and if we wait much longer, we're going to be all learning how to swim."
The Martha's Vineyard Commission energy policy calls for designing and constructing buildings to exceed energy efficiency standards in the Massachusetts Building Code by at least 20 percent and, if so determined by the Martha's Vineyard Commission, also meet the standards of the federal Energy Star program.
The policy also requires that all non-residential projects with a total floor area greater than 3,000 square feet and residential projects of four or more units be certified by Energy Star.
Projects with a total floor area greater than 6,000 square feet and residential projects of 20 or more units will be required to meet the standards for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) created by the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council.
Real estate agent John Best, a former Tisbury commissioner, and Chris Fried, an avid energy conservationist, were the only two members of the public to attend the hearing and offer comment.
Mr. Best said he thought the Martha's Vineyard Commission's energy policy ought to be applied to residential construction as well as commercial. "What you're seeing in DRIs is usually commercial development," he pointed out. "I would suggest to you that you're unlikely to see much of this in the way of commercial development in a depressed economy."
Several commissioners questioned how widely the policy was distributed and how much public comment it received.
"Architects, local builders? No correspondence?" questioned West Tisbury commissioner Andrew Woodruff.
Tisbury commissioner and energy subcommittee chairman Peter Cabana said he sent copies of the policy to all of the commissioners. He also asked for and received written comments from West Tisbury architect and former commissioner Kate Warner, an alternative energy advocate and founder of the Vineyard Energy Project, and Mr. Fried.
Martha's Vineyard Commission senior planner Bill Veno said he sent the draft policy to town planning boards as well, but did not receive any written comments. Mr. London said he sent out a press release about the policy and noted that The Martha's Vineyard Times published an article about it ("Martha's Vineyard Commission proposes more stringent DRI energy review," November 26.) He said he also discussed the policy informally with Island architects.
"We made a conscious attempt to try and get input comment from the working level contractors that are actually doing this kind of work," Mr. Cabana said. "We are working together with other agencies to try and make this as revenue neutral as possible, and one of the most difficult issues is that for requiring some of this, things will cost initially more money, but in every case, that money will be recovered in energy savings."
Edgartown commissioner James Athearn was not so sure. "I can see that substantive changes, like insulation in a building, would have that payback - I'd like to know more about Energy Star and LEED certification, in that I have a wariness as a businessman of filling out forms and checking boxes and jumping through hoops," he said. "It can be very expensive if you have to hire an expert to do it for you, or difficult to fit into a category."
Mr. Athearn asked what extra expense the new policy would place on a DRI applicant's budget. Mr. Cabana said initially, there would be an extra cost to bring someone to Martha's Vineyard who is qualified to determine whether projects are LEED certifiable.
"That's why we have a graduated scale here," Mr. London added. "It is only the very biggest projects that are LEED level, and notice that it says 'LEED certifiable' - it doesn't say LEED certified, because we were following the lead of the city of Boston, where they felt they were unwilling to impose a pretty high cost on an applicant to actually go through LEED certification."
In answer to questions about enforcing the policy, Mr. Cabana suggested that the Martha's Vineyard Commission join LEED and get a staff member trained to do the certification, which also would cut the cost of bringing someone over from the mainland to do it.
As a carpenter/caretaker, Oak Bluffs commissioner Richard Toole was the only one on the energy subcommittee with a direct connection to the building trades. He suggested making one person on Martha's Vineyard an "energy inspector," instead of putting an extra burden on building inspectors.
"This is cutting edge, leading edge stuff - but if we keep waiting until we get a perfect commodity, just forget about it," Mr. Toole said, noting that it took almost two years to draft the policy. "In the time that this has been chewed on, the price of energy has gone from $40 to $140 and back down to almost $40 again."
Decide or delay
Chilmark commissioner Chris Murphy suggested sending copies of the policy to as many architects and contractors as possible for comment before the Martha's Vineyard Commission voted on it, to get it right the first time. "If we make a policy and apply it for two years across the board for two years, and then discover that we've screwed it up, it's very hard to go back and sort of relieve the burden we've put on those people over the past two years," he said.
Mr. Sederholm asked architect James Weisman of Terrrain Associates, who happened to be in the audience for another hearing, for his comment.
"Just for your information, I'm fully aware that you've been considering energy efficiency for projects brought to you," Mr. Weisman admitted, "but I have no idea what that document says."
Reminding the commissioners that the policy received previous publicity and was available on the Martha's Vineyard Commission website, Mr. Sederholm asked whether they wanted to circulate the document and get more feedback before making a decision on it.
"I think we have not been effective at reaching out, because I don't think that people have time to read the newspaper, and the website certainly not," said Oak Bluffs commissioner Mimi Davisson. "I think we need to seek out one-on-one a few contractors who we know would be anti-Martha's Vineyard Commission, you know, to get a negatory point of view just to see what the reactions are, and I definitely think with the enforcement issue that the building inspectors need to be brought in."
Clearly exasperated by talk of delaying the vote, Mr. Toole urged the commissioners to move forward. "The intent here is to build a more sustainable energy efficient, easier to maintain, cheaper to run, longer lasting building, which benefits everybody," he said.
Reaching a consensus to adopt the policy as a starting point, the commissioners unanimously approved it and agreed to send copies to Island architects, designers, builders, building inspectors, and planning boards, with a request for feedback.