Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Council OKs green initiatives

Members delay for one year environmental standards on buildings

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The County Council on Tuesday approved a collection of global warming laws aimed at reducing the county’s greenhouse gas emissions through some of the toughest rules in the country.

The votes came on Earth Day, April 22, on the seven bills proposed on Earth Day a year ago by Councilman Roger Berliner.

Council members passed most of the seven bills easily but required a compromise on a heavily debated requirement to have home builders construct new homes based on a stringent set of standards, known as Energy Star.

The Energy Star ratings are intended to reduce carbon emissions by requiring builders to implement ‘‘green” initiatives. For example, they need to install energy-efficient appliances and windows and must hire third-party inspectors to verify the energy savings.

The law applies to buildings up to four stories tall. The council previously implemented a different set of energy-efficient guidelines for taller buildings.

The county’s building organization originally balked at the Energy Star provision, saying that the standards should not be mandated but remain voluntarily. A council committee had also previously rejected the Energy Star requirements. Builders also said environmentally minded homebuyers are already pushing the market to be energy-efficient.

The Maryland National Capital Building Industry Association estimated that the cost to meet the requirements would range from $10,000 to $20,000 per new house. These costs would be in addition to cost increases approved by the council last year as part of the county’s growth policy, making a costly process even costlier, said Councilwoman Nancy M. Floreen (D-At large) of Garrett Park, chairwoman of the council’s environment and transportation committee.

The bill as originally submitted would have required the initiatives to take effect in 2009, but Berliner proposed a one-year implementation delay to January 2010, to satisfy concerns from other council members and members of the building industry.

‘‘This ensures that Montgomery County will be at its rightful place as a national leader in combating global warming,” said Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac. ‘‘We will be the first county to have mandated Energy Star. ... Do I think it could have come about sooner? Yes.”

The year delay was satisfactory to the building industry.

‘‘The 2010 effective date allows the industry to plan for a change in specifications,” said Raquel Montenegro, a lobbyist for the building association.

For members of her association, Montenegro said the biggest request is understanding what standards are required early in the building process, which the delay would allow.

Also included in the amended bill was a provision, requested by Floreen, requiring a work group to research ways to reduce the impact on affordable housing, as well as determine if better alternatives to the Energy Star rating standards exist.

Also included in the package is a requirement that the county adopt a Climate Action Plan, including goals to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2010 and evaluation of a carbon tax, and cap-and-trade program for energy credits. Another bill aimed at motor vehicles, requires the county’s diesel vehicles to use biofuels, evaluate usage of sport utility vehicles and provide low carbon gasoline. Another provision provides property tax credits for energy conservation and develops a renewable energy action plan.

A sustainability working group will undertake several of the duties contained in the package to determine best practices on implementing the legislation.

The County Council’s environmental package follows efforts by the state legislature this year, as well as a general move by all levels of government to move jurisdictions toward environmentally friendly practices.

Earlier this week, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) joined 17 other governors in signing a climate change declaration calling for the federal government to follow their lead in acting to curb human activities that contribute to climate change.

In the General Assembly session just ended earlier this month, state lawmakers passed a range of environmental laws based on O’Malley’s proposals — including a regional pact to reduce carbon emissions and more stringent emissions standards that will apply to new cars sold in Maryland beginning in 2010.

Along the way some of the green proposals set forth by political leaders have been altered as lawmakers grapple with tight budgets and industry weigh-in.

Like the one-year delay for the Energy Star requirements, a state restriction on dish detergents containing phosphorus was also delayed, and an O’Malley-backed global warming bill that aimed to impose one of the strictest laws in the nation to curb emissions was watered down in the Senate and ultimately killed in the House amid concerns from labor and industries that it would cost jobs.

Also, lawmakers such as Councilman George L. Leventhal are concerned that green legislation does not become a fad.

‘‘We are at some risk here of making gestures and not following through,” said Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park.

More online

To find out more information about the package of environmentally friendly bills passed by the County Council, visit⁄council