How Much Of A Stretch To Become A Green Community?

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Conservation , Municipal Finance

Many homeowners have been doing their part to make Orleans “greener” by using solar power. This residential array overlooks Woods Cove. ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS — Mashpee was the first “green community” on Cape Cod, and since 2010 has received $446,093 in state funds. That kind of “green” appeals not only to the Orleans Renewable Energy Committee but also to the town revenue committee.

Both boards were represented at the June 21 joint meeting of the selectmen and finance committee to hear a presentation on getting to green from Seth Pickering, southeast regional coordinator for the green communities division of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources.

“The central theme is energy conservation and efficiency,” he said. “You've done a number of these things, and we can help you do more.” Pickering said 185 of the state's 351 cities and towns have qualified as “green;” on the Cape, in addition to Mashpee, these include Provincetown, Truro, and Wellfleet.

If Orleans satisfies the five criteria, Pickering said, it could receive an initial designation grant of between $140,000 and $150,000. When those funds are spent, the town could apply for competitive grants. The money is intended to help improve energy efficiency in municipal operations.

The criteria include adopting as-of-right siting for renewable energy facilities with expedited permitting (12 months); creating a municipal energy use baseline and an energy reduction plan to try to reduce that baseline by 20 percent over five years; instituting a fuel-efficient vehicle purchase policy; and adopting an energy-efficient building code referred to as a stretch code.

If towns don't make the 20 percent reduction in five years, Pickering said, “you don't lose your designation. We don't take money away from you. What we've done in most towns is help you get more grant money to do more.”

He noted that police, fire, and public works vehicles are not subject to the purchase policy. “We ask towns to do a vehicle inventory,” Pickering said, “but we don't ask you to get rid of certain vehicles before you're ready to get rid of them. If you do replace them, there are miles-per-gallon requirements.”

The so-called stretch code is an appendix to the existing building code that would be adopted by Town Meeting, according to Pickering. This requirement, he said, has been a sticking point for Cape and Islands towns.

“When we were first down here (the legislation for green communities was enacted in 2008), there was a difference,” said Pickering. The stretch code was applicable to additions and renovations. “The building trades people didn't like that because it was a big change.”

Now in Massachusetts, the building code is updated every three years. “If you adopt the stretch code,” Pickering said, “the next iteration of the base code will be pretty close. You're really just getting ahead of the game.”

Only new residential construction, not renovations and additions, would be affected in Orleans, according to Pickering. Such structures would be required to have a home energy score of 55 or lower, for example, and he noted that there are related incentive programs that can “make it a wash” for builders.

“If it didn't work out for Orleans, you could go back to town meeting and renounce it,” Pickering said, adding that none of the 204 municipalities that have adopted the code have done so.

“Once one gets green,” finance committee chair Lynn Bruneau asked, “what happens to administrative overhead, the ongoing upkeep of records?”

“It's a pretty light lift,” Pickering replied. “You can apportion up to 10 percent of your designation grant for administration.” He said the state has recently added a municipal energy technical assistance grant program, with services provided on Cape by the Cape Light Compact, to help towns become designated and help them with annual reporting as well as applications for competitive grants.

“We really do understand how limited town halls are when it comes to resources,” Pickering said. “We don't want our program to be an overburden. We want to make it worth your while to become designated.”

Town Administrator John Kelly pointed to a variety of energy-saving steps Orleans has taken in recent years, including upgrading its street lights and traffic lights, and wondered how much of that effort would count in setting the municipal baseline to be reduced.

Given the public outreach that should occur first, Pickering said, it's likely Orleans wouldn't apply until the end of the next calendar year. Towns applying in 2017 have been able to reach back to July 2015.

Kelly suggested that the selectmen schedule a discussion with Building Commissioner Tom Evers, Building and Facility Manager Ron Collins, and the renewable energy committee on the specifics of the designation. Committee chair Jim Hungerford said his group plans to review an energy reduction plan from a town comparable to Orleans, and will participate in identifying energy-saving opportunities in the capital improvement plan.

“We definitely want to do as much outreach as we can, so when people go to town meeting to make a vote they feel like they're making informed decisions,” Pickering said. “One of the best things about my program is it's up to the towns. Nobody is going to twist your arm. We'd love to see you take advantage of the opportunities.”