As we head into the homestretch for the mid-cycle election season, there’s an ill-timed shove afoot in Harvard for a special town meeting.
The General Election takes place Nov. 2. The Harvard Energy Advisory Committee is rushing around to various boards to push a special Harvard town meeting for the following Tuesday night, Nov. 9.
Generally, Harvard town meetings are on Saturdays and there’s more than a month’s notice. Many folks have other elections on their mind at the moment and this would be a one-issue town meeting with an economic impact for every Harvard property owner. Nothing to rush into.
The issue is whether Harvard should adopt the “Stretch Energy Code” — a set of alternative energy-conscious building regulations above and beyond the “base” state building code. If enacted locally, it will require property owners to comply with stricter energy-consumption limits for renovations and new construction.
Ardent supporters and direct benefactors admit that adoption of the Stretch Code could add $10,000 to the cost of the average home built in Massachusetts. But trade groups like the Home Builders Association of Massachusetts (HBAM) projected the costs would be much higher in a position piece issued in March 2009.
The group cited a staggering statistic against such strict energy consumption mandates. Nationally, 70 percent of all homebuyers turn down energy upgrades when offered by homebuilders. The energy savings does not justify the added upfront costs.
The HBAM said although “well intentioned,” the Stretch Energy Code provisions “will add substantial upfront cost to a new home without any immediate and measurable energy cost savings to homeowners, and may well prove to be an economic barrier to homeownership at a time when securing mortgage financing is particularly onerous for all but the very wealthy … With our state and national economy in recession and the housing market in shambles, this is the worst possible time for the Patrick Administration to be imposing costs on prospective homeowners that they cannot afford.”
By the way, the “base” building code in Massachusetts has already been retooled to take energy-savings into account, but in a more moderate way.
Under the present statewide code for new construction, buildings must achieve a 100 HERS rating. Each one point decrease in the HERS Index corresponds to a 1 percent reduction in energy consumption compared to the HERS Reference Home. Thus a home with a HERS Index of 85 is 15 percent more energy efficient than the HERS Reference Home. A home with a HERS Index of 80 is 20 percent more energy efficient.
But, stricter still, under the Stretch Energy Code:
* new homes of 3,000 square feet or more must register 65 HERS or less.
* new homes below 3,000 square feet must register at 70 HERS or less.
That means the Stretch Energy Code requires that new construction beat the new statewide energy conservation standard by one-third.
So far 13 percent of Baystate cities and towns have signed onto the Stretch Code regulations and the code is being debated elsewhere.
Often cited criticisms include mention of:
* higher construction costs that may not be translatable to buyers later.
* the use of the Stretch Code as a way to discourage development in a community.
* a protracted period of time to recapture the higher upfront construction costs, which could delay needed renovations or repairs.
* a change away from a uniform statewide building code for the first time since 1972, which could spark inconsistent application of standards by builders and cause increased errors in construction.
Stretch Energy Code supporters tout:
* a belief the Stretch Code would spark job creation.
* a reduction in energy consumption.
* a long term savings that would more than offset initial compliance costs.
Who is right? We don’t pretend to know, but we think it’s worth slowing down and getting it right in Harvard and elsewhere during this depressed housing market and economy. Saving on energy consumption is an admirable goal, but at what expense?
And in Harvard in particular, other than a hastily called League of Women’s Voters forum last Thursday night, with a panelist head-count tipped in favor of passage, what degree of voter outreach and education has occurred?
Even if all the data on costs could be compiled in a month’s time, is a Nov. 9 special town meeting the appropriate time and place to educate the electorate on the pros and cons of this proposal? We think not.
In order to work toward a common ground, we suggest the Harvard selectmen nix the notion of a special town meeting on Nov. 9, and instead, place the idea on the warrant for the well-attended Annual Town Meeting this coming spring for legitimate consideration.
We urge supporters to compile all the data and viewpoints in the same logical, dispassionate way the Town Center Sewer Project was presented to the electorate.
That’s the real way Harvard reaches “common ground.”