2016-07-29 / Front Page

SoPo Planning Board nixes benchmarking plan

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — If the South Portland City Council chooses to institute a “benchmarking” program of measuring energy use in private buildings, it will have to do so over the objection of the city planning board.

Following a public hearing on the proposal Tuesday, July 26, the board voted 2-4 on a motion to recommend the council move forward with the idea.

While all members of the board expressed support for the city’s green initiatives, most found forcing property owners to track and report energy and water use to the city to be an invasion of privacy.

“I believe a lot of this is very intrusive. In fact, I find it to be unconstitutional,” said board member Isaac Misiuk. “If it’s not reworded to make it voluntary, I will not be able to support this.”

Board members Kevin Carr, Adrian Dowling and Chairman William Laidley joined Misiuk in voting against the proposal. Kathleen Phillips and Taylor Neff favored recommending the program to the council. Linda Boudreau was not at the meeting.

The benchmarking program was introduced as part of an overhaul to zoning in the city’s Mill Creek shopping district, designed to transform the area from a 1950s-style shopping plaza to a vibrant mix of apartments and retail shops. If adopted, benchmarking would be piloted in the new Village Extension, Broadway Corridor, and Mill Creek Core zoning districts, and would apply to all municipal and non-residential buildings larger than 5,000 square feet, as well as any apartment or condominium complex with 10 or more units. Although there are no qualifying residential buildings in the Mill Creek area, the new program would apply to 30 commercial buildings, said City Planner Tex Haeuser.

According to South Portland’s sustainability coordinator, Julie Rosenbach, owners of these properties would be required to track their building’s energy and water consumption using a web-based Energy Star Portfolio Manager tool, and report data to her office on an annual basis.

The collected data would be used to calculate energy use intensity in each building based on square footage, greenhouse gas emissions and other metrics. Each building would then get an Energy Star score intended to compare it to similar buildings nationwide. For example, a score of 30 would mean the building is 30 percent more efficient than others of its kind, while a score of 75 or higher would quality the property for Energy Star certification.

If adopted by the city council as envisioned, the property owners would have to begin reporting energy use data for their buildings starting May 1, 2018. For the first year, the city would only reveal which owners had complied with the mandate. However, starting in September 2019, and annually thereafter, would begin releasing information on all covered properties to the public.

“Benchmarking makes energy and water use visible and relatable,” Rosenbach said. “Many property owners are deterred from upgrading their buildings by a lack of information, misaligned financial incentives or insufficient capital. By removing these barriers, we can help bring down costs for businesses and consumers, and reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in line with the city’s Climate Action Plan.”

According to Rosenbach, two states, one county and 14 cities in the U.S. have already adopted policies requiring “benchmarking and transparency” for large buildings.

“Studies of these policies have shown that many building owners, after seeing their data benchmarked, decide to make energy upgrades to their buildings voluntarily,” Rosenbach said. “A 2012 (Environmental Protection Agency) analysis of 35,000 benchmarked buildings found that these buildings see an average annual energy savings of 2.4 percent, and buildings that had benchmarked for three years in a row saved an average of 7 percent over the course of that time.”

Although one city resident referred to the proposal as a form of “energy shaming,” Rosenbach said it is important to get a handle on energy use because the building sector accounts for roughly 40 percent of total U.S. energy consumption, and nearly 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.

“This is more than any other sector, including industry or transportation,” she said. “As the saying goes, ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.’”

“If you don’t have the data, you don’t really know what best to do,” Haeuser agreed.

“Really, Mill Creek property owners stand to get a lot from what’s being proposed here,” Haeuser said, noting relaxed building requirements, along with provisions for taller buildings and no density limit, among other provisions in the new zoning districts. “We hope they take advantage of it. So, it seems not unreasonable, while giving all of these benefits, at the same time to ask something back, in this case an environmental protection in the form of a benchmarking metric.”

Haueser said the metrics might be used, once benchmarking is used city wide, to direct grant dollars and possible low-interest city loans to help property owners upgrade the energy efficiency of their buildings.

“This sounds like it’s inching into areas the market should deal with,” Laidley said.

Like their chairman, most board members were similarly dubious.

“Climate change and air pollution, it’s an issue I take really seriously,” Dowling said, “but privacy is a big issue for me, too. I don’t like how it seems like we have less and less of that as time goes by.

“I could get behind this if it was strictly an opt-in type of program,” Dowling said. “If there was no penalty for opting out, I’d say, yeah, let’s do it for the whole city right now. But as it is, right at this moment, I think my privacy concerns are a little too concerning for me to support this.”

“When we say in our plans were gong to be a green city, those can’t just be words. We have to back that up,” Neff said. “I think this is a progressive move. I don’t personally see it as intrusive, especially given that there are currently not residential buildings that would be impacted by this. I just don’t see any downsides.”

Misiuk said the whole point of the Mill Creek Redevelopment Plan is to draw residential development into the region around the city’s oldest shopping mall.

“I’d hate to see a developer not want to come in and build a residential building because they are not going to want to deal with the management of all of this,” he said.

Most of those who spoke at Tuesday’s public hearing also seemed skeptical about the plan.

“What if a tenant refuses to sign an authorization (to collect data),” asked Phil Notis, owner of the Bridgeway Restaurant. “What’s the recourse? Can you discriminate and not rent based on the fact they won’t sign a disclosure?”

“We would make efforts to talk to the tenant to try and encourage participation,” Haeuser said. “However, if an owner was simply unable to obtain that data, we do have provisions that would allow the owner to provide partial data or other data. So, the owner is not necessarily in hot water, so to speak, if there’s a tenant who’s simply refusing to participate.”

At one point during the hearing, Haeuser read an email he received, indicating the refusal of some to have their energy data collected and disseminated by the city is not a theoretical worry.

“I will not allow my information to be gathered. Does your benchmarking take into effect that you will have to sue me in order to obtain it?” wrote Broadway resident Ruthann Van De Pitte.

Sawyer Street resident David Canarie also had strong words.

“I think making this mandatory is an intrusive overreach,” he said. “It is really going to require landlords to act as agents of the city to obtain information about daily living, such as cooking and bathing and washing that is highly personal, information people may not want to share.”

Canarie also noted the data can be shared with law enforcement organizations, while also tracing the Energy Star tool not to the EPA, but to a “D.C. lobbying firm.” Canarie also said the promise that building owners will be inspired by seeing their Energy Star scores to upgrade their buildings, “is code for ‘rents will go up.’”

“Real benchmarking has to take into account that a lot of our neighbors are struggling just to keep warm,” he said. “We have to be careful, there can be a lot of unintended consequences from all of this energy shaming.”

While the majority of the board voted against the recommending the benchmarking program to the council, most of the no votes suggested they’d support the city using the Energy Star tool and reporting metrics in public buildings.

“Let’s eat our own food, first,” Carr said.

Return to top