By Tom Brown
Montpelier residents on Town Meeting Day will be asked to decide on a proposed change to the city charter that would give city councilors the authority to set and enforce energy efficiency standards for residential and commercial properties.
If approved, the change would allow councilors to establish energy efficiency thresholds for all new and existing residential, commercial, and rental buildings in the city.
“The intent here is to allow the city to create some ordinances that would protect renters from high costs of energy as well as protect home-buyers when they go to buy, or renters if they were renting a house,” Mayor Anne Watson said. “The two things we have in mind, one is about creating regulations around the energy efficiency of rental buildings, and also around energy disclosure at the time of sale of the building.”
The mayor believes that improving the energy efficiency of the city’s rental stock is essential to meeting the city’s net-zero energy goals and could make rental units more affordable by reducing heating costs.
“We can’t legitimately have a conversation about net-zero energy as a community if we don’t have a strategy around rentals,” Watson said, noting that 40 percent of the city’s housing is in rental properties.
The thought is that some landlords, and certainly not all, have little incentive to weatherize their buildings, particularly if tenants pay for heat, and that tenants have no authority to make such improvements themselves.
On the homeowner side, Watson envisions a requirement for sellers to provide an energy assessment profile to would-be buyers that would assign a score to the home similar to the mileage rating on a new car sticker. Such an assessment is offered by Efficiency Vermont for about $250 and differs from a full energy audit, which is more expensive, she said.
The new proposal is a spinoff from the charter change approved by voters in November that gives the council the authority to ban single-use plastic bags. That proposal originally contained language that would give the council the authority to regulate energy efficiency and other environmental concerns, including plastics. The city council found the language too broad and elected to split the charter change request into separate parts, resulting in the plastic bag vote in November. All city charter changes must be approved first by voters and then by the state legislature before going into effect.
While the idea is fresh and any ordinance is many months away at the least, Watson is aware that property owners might be skeptical of any new housing regulations from the city.
“We are looking for a lot of input from all as we move forward,” she said. “I want to make sure we have the dials set right, that we find the right numbers for our market.”
As a realtor, landlord, and homeowner, Tim Heney has a large stake in this debate and while no specific details are set in stone, he is concerned about the city’s capability to take on another regulatory function.
“If we’re going to improve housing in Montpelier and make it better for everybody, it’s not just Montpelier, it should be a statewide policy, and it should be at a level where it’s uniform and enforceable,” he said.
Watson and Heney both point out that the majority of property owners in the city are committed to weatherization and energy efficiency and should be recognized for their efforts.
Heney said property owners are faced with rising costs on many fronts, including taxes, flood insurance, and routine maintenance, and that there are other ways the city could help boost energy efficiency. A recent renovation of a single apartment unit his family owns cost about $20,000 he said.
One way the city might help improve weatherization without mandates is through the permitting process, Heney said. For example, if a property owner was seeking a permit for a new roof, perhaps they could be advised on ways to add insulation at the same time.
Watson said Efficiency Vermont has committed to assign a person to deal directly with rental property owners and connect them with rebates, loan programs, and other benefits such as those offered to homeowners. She also suggested that any ordinance might be not take effect until, for example, a year or more from when it was adopted to give property owners time to adjust.
As a science teacher and a strong believer that humans need to act now to combat climate change, Watson said the city has a responsibility to do what it can to be a leader. When asked how that squares with a new parking garage she said:
“I want that structure to be the single biggest venue for electric vehicle charging stations in the state,” which would require at least 15 spots, she said.
Voting will be held on Town Meeting Day, March 5, at City Hall, and early voting will start as soon as the printed ballots are received, which is likely to be this week, City Clerk John Odum said.
Proposed Charter Change:
The charter change language gives the council the authority to:
Enact ordinances enforcing minimum energy efficiency standards and disclosure requirements for existing and new commercial and residential properties that are generally consistent with State, Federal, and other energy efficiency standards and reporting systems.