Some South Portland building owners will have to disclose energy use

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The City Council voted Wednesday night to implement an energy benchmarking standard for Mill Creek property owners.

The council also gave preliminary approval to a zoning change that allows a second residence for specialized housing in Knightville.

Energy benchmarking gained notoriety over the summer after some Planning Board members suggested the requirement to make property owners disclose the energy used by their buildings would be an invasion of privacy. But the measure passed 5-1, with Councilor Linda Cohen opposed and Councilor Brad Fox absent due to illness.

There are 30 buildings in Mill Creek that will have to comply. The new standards, which would also apply to the city’s 30 municipal buildings, would be mandated for Mill Creek buildings of at least 5,000 square feet, and residential buildings with 10 or more units.

Beginning in May 2018, the owners of eligible properties would have to report only to the city how much electricity and water is used by their properties. Building owners wouldn’t be required to make their energy use available to the public until September 2019.

To provide an incentive for owners to readily record their energy use, the city will waive up to $5,000 in licensing and other fees. 

Benchmarking is intended to “enable more energy and climate protection planning,” as well as “helping buildings owners (and) prospective buyers and tenants better understand the performance of participating buildings over time,” according to information presented by the Planning and Development Department. 

In a December meeting with the Planning Board, Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser told members that mandated reporting is justified because, “when a building becomes large enough, there’s enough of an environmental impact … that it becomes reasonable to ask for public recording of energy and water use data.”

The Mill Creek neighborhood, which is adjacent to Knightville at the base of the Casco Bay Bridge, is the guinea pig for the new standards as part of a larger effort to revitalize the area, both economically and aesthetically. 

Last fall, the council passed zoning amendments for the neighborhood, intended to increase pedestrian access and expand allowable uses and density requirements in the hopes of attracting new businesses and residents.

Cohen said Wednesday that she would be able to support the project if it were “voluntary, but I’m not ready to require businesses and people to report this information.”

Mayor Patti Smith said the new standards are “a way to begin a process. Sometimes when you start something, you’re not really sure how it’s going to work out, (and) sometimes you need to take those first steps to see where you’re going to be in the future.”

More importantly, the new standard will give the city “valuable data to share, and I think sharing that data is maybe more of of a collective effort,” Smith said. 

Councilor Eben Rose, who has been an avid supporter of the measure since the beginning, said he understands why it would bring up “some of our feelings against privacy and intrusive government,” but, “in a way, it’s showing your civic pride toward the planet.”

“I think we all have to be reminded that saving the climate is in no way a private enterprise – it is truly a public enterprise,” Rose said. “It is a public space, (and) nobody owns it.” 

Knightville zoning

The Knightville zoning change would allow a three-story, 10-unit building to be added on to the single-family home at 14 E St. that will be used by adults with varied levels of disabilities.

A home used for the same purpose sits next door, at 20 E St. The zoning change will be vetted again during a second and final reading later this month.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.