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Changes to state and national standards may impact decision

SANTA ROSA -- Just four months after mandating that new homes and commercial buildings be built according to environmentally friendly standards, Santa Rosa city officials are already exploring ways to make the city’s buildings even greener.

As Santa Rosa and other North Bay governments weigh their next green-building steps toward meeting state and countywide quotas for rolling back energy, the state and national benchmarks underlying local guidelines are also changing.

Since the City Council passed an ordinance in June, new single-family homes in Santa Rosa must qualify for at least 50 points on the Build-It-Green rating system, and commercial buildings must obtain at least 20 points from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system for new construction.

The council charged an advisory committee of real estate, banking, construction and sustainability experts to explore expansion of the city’s green-building standards. Early last month a 68-page draft report on the economic impacts of incremental increase alternatives was prepared by Gabel Associates, Practica Consulting and Kema Services.

The group has developed alternatives in four tiers ranging from status quo to zero-net-energy usage, which they will present to the City Council later this year.

Properly outlining the impacts has been challenging because the BuildItGreen and LEED standards are set to undergo major reorganization next year, and tougher Title 24 state energy-efficiency standards, which are related to the rating standards, will take effect in mid-2009.

Committee member Greg Hurd of civil engineering and urban planning firm Carlenzoli & Associates advocates a cautious approach to ordinance increases to avoid burdening the struggling local building industry as it looks to recover in the next few years.

“Let requirements for builders be light and see how it works,” he said. “Let it adjust with recognized benchmarks like Title 24. Let’s not stick it to builders right off the bat because they may look for ways to compromise what they’re doing.”

The city’s existing low-water irrigation ordinance plus Title 24 already put builders close to achieving the needed Build-It-Green and LEED points, according to Mr. Hurd.

Jeff Negri, a real estate broker with NAI BT Commercial and a committee member, said the city’s current green-building requirements don’t put much of an added cost on projects, but ramping the requirements too much without a commensurate increase in rents could crimp building owners too much.

“I’ve not seen it bear out that tenants will pay more rent if they’re in an energy-efficient building,” he said. “A lot in LEED and Build It Green are not for the benefit of the landlord but the tenant.”

Sonoma County officials are developing a proposal for a green-building ordinance parallel to the point system Santa Rosa enacted in June, according to DeWayne Starnes, deputy director of the county Permit & Resource Management Department. The county originally wanted to institute a voluntary program, but the Santa Rosa City Council’s decision for a mandatory program prompted the county to pursue required standards.

“Unless you offer substantial incentives, voluntary programs really don’t work,” Mr. Starnes said.

The county explored voluntary programs in other cities and found those jurisdictions largely offered project applicants shortened timeframes for checking plans and inspections or discounted energy fees. Such “carrots” weren’t available to the department because it has achieved shorter turnaround times than those cities and doesn’t have such a fee, according to Mr. Starnes.

The Board of Supervisors has expressed the need for a green-building ordinance to complement county pioneering efforts to increase energy efficiency in existing homes, as allowed under the newly signed Assembly Bill 811.

County staff are looking to take a proposal to the board in November or December to have a draft ordinance ready in July, around the time clarity is expected in changes to Title 24, LEED and Build It Green. Unless supervisors decide to act sooner, county planners expect to hold stakeholder workshops on the ordinance before July.

In Napa, city officials put a voluntary green-building ordinance in place in May 2007, calling on builders to complete Build-It-Green or LEED checklists as a tool for constructing projects with as much environmental consciousness as possible. The goal was to introduce mandatory standards for large residential and small commercial projects in August of this year, eventually covering successively smaller housing projects.

However, the Napa City Council put brakes on the implementation of the mandatory ordinance when businesses and the building community started questioning the impact, according to Sally Seymour, project manager of Sustainable Napa County. As Sonoma County plans to, Sustainable Napa County held three workshops in August for businesses and the building industry to explain the LEED system and green-building changes coming in the state building codes.

“We wanted to find out what people were worried about and bring back the comments to the cities and the county so that when the ordinances are fashioned there won’t be fist fights at council meetings,” she said.

A revised mandatory ordinance may be back before the Napa City Council as early as November.

The county of Napa included language calling for green building in the Conservation Element of the updated General Plan, which was adopted earlier this summer. As the county completes the regular update to the Housing Element of the plan, green-building guidelines are being considered, and a draft ordinance may be before the Board of Supervisors in early 2009.

St. Helena also is finishing a draft green-building ordinance.