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To get a true net-zero building code, we must speak up

The following letter to the editor about the proposed "stretch" building code was written by the Arlington Clean Heat Steering Committee: Amos Meeks (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.), Anne Wright (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) and Pat Hanlon (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

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Last December, Town Meeting, by a vote of 225-18, adopted a Clean Heat Bylaw that would in most cases prevent on-site combustion of fossil fuels in new buildings and major renovations. After  Brookline we were the second Massachusetts town to adopt a Clean Heat Bylaw. Since then, others -- including Lexington, Concord and Acton -- have followed. 

There was a catch, however. The municipalities adopting Clean Heat bylaws needed to petition the state Legislature for authority to implement them. In our case, the legislation was introduced by Rep. Garballey and Sen. Friedman, with Rep. Rogers in full support. The Clean Heat bills have had a hearing but are still in committee. 

Why did we have to seek special legislation for this? The reasons are complex, but the main one was this: Our hands were tied by the state building code.

Background

Last March, the Legislature enacted a Next Generation Roadmap to address climate change. A crucial provision of that act required the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) to develop a net-zero opt-in building code. Municipalities would not have to adopt the net-zero code, but those who did would be able to move aggressively on building decarbonization. This would give Arlington a chance to move forward on its net-zero policies. 

But there’s yet another catch. 

The provision for a net-zero opt-in code was vigorously opposed by some real estate and building interests and by the Baker-Polito administration – the same administration that is now charged with writing the new code. This opposition creates the risk that we will end up with a watered-down code that will not meet the state’s legally mandated climate change goals.

It is critical that the opt-in code devised by DOER be a true net-zero code. At a minimum, it must achieve the goal of Arlington’s Clean Heat Bylaw by preventing fossil fuel combustion in new buildings and major renovations. It must include residential as well as commercial construction. It must include major renovations. It must require tight building construction using Passive House or comparable methods. It must have fair but narrowly drawn waiver and exemption provisions that will prevent exceptions from swallowing the rule. 

Arlington takes lead

A true net-zero code would be a tremendous step forward in combating greenhouse gas emissions from buildings. A weak code would be a disaster. We’re tired of the building code standing in the way of local implementation of net-zero policies, and given the pace of the legislative process, it could be years before the Commonwealth gets back on track. 

Arlington has already taken the lead in advocating for a strong, net-zero code. Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine has assembled a group of 30 towns and cities to submit a letter to Secretary of Energy Kathleen Theoharides urging the adoption of a strong code and making clear that at a minimum it must allow for the clean heat (no fossil fuels) measures Town Meeting endorsed last year. Area Munis Signal Support of Net Zero Stretch Code | Town Manager News | Town of Arlington (arlingtonma.gov).

These municipalities include all our neighbors: Belmont, Cambridge, Somerville, Medford, Winchester and Lexington. Building codes seem technical and a little boring, until you realize the enormous difference they make. The only way to be sure that the new opt-in code is the net-zero tool that the Legislature wanted is for Massachusetts residents to raise their united voices. 

Nine months have passed since enactment of the roadmap legislation. DOER has yet to publish a proposal. The statutory deadline for completing the process is next November. There will be at least five hearings throughout the state, as well as other opportunities for the public to make clear its insistence on a strong code.

We hope that many Arlingtonians will attend hearings, submit comments to DOER, and work with us to encourage others throughout the state to insist on such a code, for the sake of future generations, our town, and our country.

Half-measures will not do. Massachusetts needs a true net-zero code. 


Dec. 1, 2021: Support for 'stretch code' to limit carbon started here


This letter to the editor was published Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2021.

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