South Portland council shows support for energy benchmarks

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SOUTH PORTLAND — A proposal to require some Mill Creek property owners to chart the energy used by their buildings gained traction with most city councilors Wednesday night. 

Although a vote was not taken at the workshop, councilors – with the exception of Mayor Tom Blake and Councilor Linda Cohen – enthusiastically supported the measure; Councilor Claude Morgan was absent.

The proposal will come back to the council for formal first and second readings in the winter.

The goal of energy benchmarking, which would comply with the city’s Climate Action Plan, is to help reduce the city’s carbon footprint. Planning and Development Director Tex Haeuser said Wednesday that the data collected could be beneficial as the city determines how to develop infrastructure that is more efficient.

According to Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach, the building sector nationally accounts for 40 percent of energy use and carbon dioxide emissions.

Benchmarking would only include data collection; it would not force property owners to take measures to make their buildings more energy efficient, although that is the ultimate hope, Haeuser said. 

Led by Haeuser and Rosenbach, the benchmarking proposal would apply to all municipal buildings that are at least 5,000 square feet in size – approximately 30 structures – as well as commercial and residential buildings in the Mill Creek neighborhood that are at least 5,000 square feet or have 10 or more units. 

There are also about 30 commercial buildings in Mill Creek that fall into that category, but no residential buildings, bringing the total number of applicable buildings to about 60. 

“We’re measuring energy in our food, vehicles and in our appliances,” Rosenbach said. “Buildings are a natural extension of this.”

Estimates show that by improving buildings that consume a lot of energy, the energy reduction could be 18-31 percent, Haeuser said. 

The benchmarks are being proposed in conjunction with zoning amendments to the Mill Creek Master Plan, which were adopted last summer. The amendments include changes to on-street parking standards, an increase in the height of buildings allowed in the neighborhood, and an increase in allowed uses – all to create incentives for a more urban area that is greener and more walkable.

The benchmarking provisions got a chilly response when they were presented to the Planning Board this summer. The board ultimately did not recommend the provisions to the council.

Opponents called benchmarking an invasion of privacy; board member Isaac Misiuk called it “unconstitutional.” 

When asked about the proposal at a forum earlier this month, Michael Pock, who is running for City Council, compared the proposal to the over-reaching power of government illustrated in George Orwell’s novel “1984.”

Phil Notis, owner of the Bridgeway Restaurant at 71 Ocean St., criticized the plan Wednesday for publicizing the specific types of energy people use, specifically for more vulnerable populations, such as elderly residents using medical machinery. 

But Rosenbach and Haeuser said it would be nothing more than data collection, and that the data collected will not reveal specifics about people’s activities. 

“We’re not interested in what individual people are doing and how they’re using buildings, but more how the buildings perform,” Rosenbach said. 

As an incentive, building owners could receive up to $5,000 in waivers of licensing fees, Haeuser reminded the group. 

In response to the claim that residents shouldn’t be forced to comply with a mandated measure when it concerns private property, Councilor Eben Rose said, “It’s nobody’s private atmosphere. Nobody owns the atmosphere – it’s a common resource. Nobody owns the climate.”

“We have to figure out rules to get along,” he said. 

Rose said he was “baffled” by the level of resistance, since the measure would help accomplish a much more important and beneficial goal for the entire community. 

Councilor Brad Fox agreed: “It seems to me we’re going to do this if we’re going to reduce our carbon footprint.”

But Cohen said the measure “does seem a little bit invasive.”

“I get that we’re offering people some incentives here, (but) I think I would like it better if it were a voluntary situation,” she said. “I think we’re starting to tell people what they (can and) can’t do on their private property just a little too much.”

Haeuser said he understands how some people may feel the proposal is a giant leap for the community, but added, “We have to take reasonable steps as a community to address significant problems.”

“Global warming and these associated environmental issues are serious. I choose personally, and as a professional, to look at what’s ahead,” he said.

Benchmarking is a “really inexpensive way to get proven results,” simply by disclosing data; the way to flourish in a civilization is to use all of the tools available, Haeuser said.

“This is not meant to be punitive in any way,” he said. “We just want to help in the most efficient way we can.”

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.