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City Moves Toward Adopting Sustainable Building Policy

By Beth Milligan

Traverse City Ticker; March 27, 2023

What started as a discussion last fall among Traverse City commissioners about adopting a new building electrification policy has expanded into a broader review of sustainable building practices. Commissioners could soon consider adopting construction standards for new city buildings – plus renovations of existing city properties – as the city works toward a goal of becoming carbon-neutral by mid-century.

Commissioner Tim Werner initially asked commissioners to consider approving a new building electrification policy in October. Werner, noting the city’s stated intent to “be proactive and take a leading role in addressing climate change,” called for adopting a policy requiring all new buildings built on city-owned property to be fully electrified, as well as all new buildings that receive city payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) agreements to be fully electrified. All city property sold or leased would be deed-restricted to full electrification, and any city buildings undergoing major renovations would be fully electrified. The city would not purchase any new boilers or other heating supplied by fossil fuels under the policy, nor have generators requiring fossil fuels.

Projects should minimize loads to the public stormwater system, encourage green spaces and plantings, incorporate nature-based infrastructure into stormwater treatment, and protect topsoil and minimize disruption of existing trees and vegetation, according to the draft.

Commissioners rejected the policy in a 2-5 vote in January – primarily for logistical rather than philosophical reasons. Several commissioners agreed it was a top priority to address climate change, including the city’s building policy, but wanted to better understand how such a policy would be implemented. They also wanted to hear recommendations first from the city’s Green Team, a committee comprised of city leaders and staff and representatives from local nonprofits and businesses working to implement “clean, sustainable, and environmentally-friendly solutions,” according to the city’s website.

Last week, City Manager Marty Colburn presented a recommended draft policy – created in collaboration with the Green Team – to guide city construction projects. The policy would apply to any new city buildings, as well as major renovations and additions to existing buildings. The latter would be triggered by certain conditions, such as additions over 5,000 square feet, additions that double a site’s footprint, or anytime HVAC or other significant appliance systems fail or reach the end of their lifecycle. The policy would also be triggered when city buildings undergo a change of use/occupancy purpose.

Far from focusing solely on electrification, the policy considers numerous aspects of construction, from site design to stormwater considerations to building envelopes. Projects should minimize loads to the public stormwater system, encourage green spaces and plantings, incorporate nature-based infrastructure into stormwater treatment, and protect topsoil and minimize disruption of existing trees and vegetation, according to the draft. New construction would require electrification or other carbon-neutral technology, with the possibility of battery and/or fossil fuel backups for emergency services.

Other recommended standards include incorporating electric vehicle (EV)-readiness into any facility with parking, including spaces on-site for managing waste materials sustainably, looking first at envelope weatherization before any HVAC replacement when renovating buildings, using energy-efficient products and fixtures, and installing building controls that can automate effective balancing and offer demand response flexibility. The policy also calls for having a clear city spending preference for “building materials that are environmentally, economically, and socially responsible.”

While the goal is to move away from using fossil fuels as much as possible, Colburn acknowledged that they may be still needed in some areas for the near future, such as emergency backups. As a balance, the draft policy states that “any new fossil fuel infrastructure installed shall trigger an investment into the city’s tree fund.” Colburn said that as the energy industry continues to pivot away from fossil fuels and technology keeps evolving, he felt comfortable – with input from local energy and business leaders – that the city could meet its proposed construction standards.

“The industry is growing, they’re learning, they’re modeling, they’re getting better at this all the time. The industry has changed enough to where you can still get that competitive bidding.” 
— Traverse City Manager Marty Colburn

The draft policy notes that in the United States, commercial facilities on average “waste about 30 percent of the energy they pay for utilities. Not only is this energy wasted, most of it is still being generated from fossil fuels.” By moving toward “building electrification or other low/carbon neutral solutions” and setting “current and future construction standards and purchasing decisions to significantly reduce facility energy use and related greenhouse gas emissions,” the city can move forward in its “process of decarbonization,” the draft states.

City commissioners agreed last week to send the Green Team any questions or concerns they had about the draft policy. They are then expected to meet in a future study session to review the standards in depth ahead of a possible vote to adopt them. Commissioners acknowledged there could be two components to the process: adopting a shorter, high-level city commission policy that outlines the city’s commitment to sustainable building practices in general terms, then using the more detailed document created by Colburn and the Green Team as an internal implementation policy to put that commitment into practice.

Colburn said the draft would be reviewed by key city departments – like planning, zoning, and legal – to ensure the recommendations meet current city ordinances. Some of those ordinances may need to be updated to support the new guidelines, he said. City commissioners also plan to collaborate with Traverse City Light & Power (TCLP) on the policy. TCLP is currently developing its own Climate Action Plan, set to be unveiled later this year, to reduce the utility’s carbon impact while protecting grid resiliency. Werner, who sits on the TCLP board, said “there’s very much a synergy” to the city commission’s proposed building policy and the TCLP Climate Action Plan.

Mayor Richard Lewis agreed, asking to have TCLP leadership at the next study session so the two bodies can move forward together in their work to become carbon-neutral. “It is a team effort,” he said. “By mid-century, we want to get to that goal to the best of our ability. It’s not going to happen instantaneously, but (this) could be a good positive road map.”