South Portland weighs requiring Mill Creek buildings to report energy use

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Planning Board members were divided in a workshop Tuesday night about standards that would require some building owners in the Mill Creek area to make public how much energy and water their buildings use.

The intention behind the proposal from the Planning and Development Department and Sustainability Coordinator Julie Rosenbach is to trim excess energy use and cut down on the city’s carbon emissions. 

The concern among board members wasn’t as much about the incentive to reduce carbon emissions as it was forcing the information to be made public. 

Board member Linda Boudreau said forcing building owners to release how much energy their buildings use “feels like a huge personal intrusion.”

Planning Director Tex Haeuser acknowledged that the standards would be “a little bit” invasive, but said the city is “serious about wanting to make improvements” and reduce carbon emissions. In order to do that effectively, everyone has to play their part, he said. 

Benchmarks are being proposed in conjunction with proposed rezoning in the Mill Creek area to accommodate a “more downtown-like … higher-density, pedestrian-focused neighborhood,” according to a draft of the rezoning language. 

Rezoning Mill Creek goes hand in hand with the Mill Creek Master Plan, which was drafted as a way to encourage more community-centered development, both residential and commercial, in the small neighborhood near the foot of the Casco Bay Bridge. 

Benchmarking energy and water use in Mill Creek would be viewed as a sort of “pilot (program) for the rest of the city,” Haeuser said at the June 14 workshop, and would complement the Climate Action Plan.

The standards would apply to buildings 5,000 square feet and larger and residential buildings with 10 or more units. The new standards would also apply to all municipal buildings and schools, Haeuser said. The data would be collected and monitored by the city.

Recording the information and having the buildings scored for efficiency will also allow building owners to compare their buildings with others of similar size across the country, Haeuser said. 

“We’re not trying to hold a big hammer over people,” Haeuser said, adding the city would work closely to help owners meet benchmarks. 

If formally adopted, the standards wouldn’t go into effect until May 2018, and building owners wouldn’t be required to record their energy use until 2019. 

Rosenbach said, like anything, requiring a building owner to keep a monthly log of energy consumption “isn’t going to be a breeze – it’s going to be some work.” But the program will be “a really big benefit to building owners,” she said. 

Rosenbach reminded board members that the program is based on tax incentives and is “not punitive.” However, consequences would theoretically apply if the standards are violated, similar to the consequences for any zoning violation. 

Board member Taylor Neff said she liked the benchmarking proposal and believes curbing the city’s carbon emissions “is a big priority,” especially for older housing stock, which tends to use more energy.

Rosenbach also noted that in order for South Portland to build a market for energy efficiency – one that is searchable for outside developers, for example – having a standardized report would be an important tool. 

Chairman William Laidley said it bothered him that the benchmarking enforcement efforts would be controlled by the municipality, rather than a private entity.

He also called the requirement to make the information public “intrusive.”

“It’s not clear to me why we’re not encouraging a personal responsibility aspect to this,” Laidley said.  

A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for Tuesday, June 28. 

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.