Buildings in Cambridge Are Going Fossil Fuel Free

What does Cambridge’s fossil fuel free policy really mean and how does it impact your business?  Developing new buildings and renovating old ones in Cambridge is about to become even more complicated.  To help understand the process we reached out to our good friend, long-time Cambridge resident Terrence F. Smith, to get his take on this proposal.  He is a City Planner who has worked in the energy conservation and environmental field for more than forty years and is a former Government Affairs Director with the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce. Terry took a complex issue and made it easy to understand.  This is his response to a thorny issue confronting residents, property owners and small businesses in particular.

In the past few months the City Council has adopted a number of ordinances that will add additional costs to property owners making property improvements. The goal of these actions is to reduce green house gas emissions from buildings. Now the Council is considering another restriction, the gas ban, without any analysis of the implication that this additional restriction combined with other recent regulatory actions as well as the existing regulatory system will have on the project.  

Getting GHG reductions will rely on building owners and operators meeting the new requirements when building new buildings or making building improvements.   This assumes new buildings will be built and existing buildings renovated. 

We agree with the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors – including buildings.  The City had set ambitious goals but it has not considered alternate solutions to achieve those goals or assessed the impact these additional requirements will have on property owners and their tenants, including increased costs, reduction in affordable housing and increases in rents for residents and small businesses.   Nor does it consider the necessary buildout of electric infrastructure needed to electrify existing and new buildings. Furthermore, the piling on of new requirements will likely delay necessary building improvements and may lead to degradation of building conditions.  

This is being done in a city where even small projects require a long and often costly regulatory process for approval due to a complex zoning ordinance that is designed more often to stop or delay building than it is  to meet the city’s short and long term goals. One is more likely to be told “no”, they can’t do the work they want rather than yes.  And the process rarely allows projects to move forward with conditions that address the city’s GHG reduction goals. 

We need to remember Cambridge is not an island. Property owners and investors always have the choice to spend elsewhere.

The city is taking actions without understanding the region wide implications, the impact on choices property owners may make or not make or the collective impact of these choices on the city’s short and long term goals.

The city and the council have not addressed regulatory issues that already add significant costs and timelines for making buildings more energy efficient. The proposed program adds additional costs on top of an already complex and costly regulatory system. If the city’s goal is for property owners to make investments to reduce GHG emissions, we have to make this process easier.

While adding new regulations there has been no regulatory or capacity assessment to understand the collective impact of its regulations. Those that exist, recently adopted or being considered. Property owners have the choice to do nothing. City staff, boards and commissions have limited capacity.   

The state is in the process of developing guidelines for integrated energy planning. There is legislation filed and a regulatory forum to do just that.  These guidelines will provide a thoughtful process to move toward a clean energy system serving Cambridge and the Commonwealth in a clear and orderly fashion, ensuring that all stakeholders, including energy customers, property owners and businesses have access to reliable, clean, and affordable energy.  

What neither the citizens nor the Council wants is a system that is so weighted against taking action that nothing is done. We need a system where a visit to the Building Department results in far more yeses than nos, far fewer appeals for zoning relief and more money spent on building improvements than regulatory processes.

The gas ban is in itself not a bad idea. However, the gas ban on top of one of the most complex, opaque and confusing zoning ordinances in the state, coupled with the new energy building code, the BEUDO, and oversight by, in some neighborhoods, one or more board or commission in addition to the Building Department provides one more reason to do nothing as a property owner.

Full details available here.