2022 | Government

Devising regulations is the next step after County Council passes bill setting building energy performance standards

Legislation has more rigorous goals than similar state bill

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County officials will now begin implementing legislation passed Tuesday by the County Council that’s designed to improve environmental standards and requirements for several county buildings countywide.

The legislation established building energy performance standards, which are benchmarks that specific buildings will have to meet in the coming years in order to reduce their overall carbon footprint. 

County Executive Marc Elrich said this week he would sign the bill. His administration introduced the legislation in April 2021 and it was reviewed in multiple work sessions with the council’s Transportation and Environment committee before Tuesday’s unanimous passage.

The standards apply to multiple types of commercial and residential buildings in the county that have a gross floor area of 25,000 square feet or more. County officials will now work on establishing the regulations required to meet the standards, which apply to buildings that have already been built.. 

Building that are exempt from the standards include those where more than 50% of the total gross floor area is:

  • “public assembly in a building without walls;”
  • “industrial uses where the majority of energy is consumed for manufacturing, the generation of electric power or district thermal energy to be consumed offsite, or for other process loads;” or
  • “transportation, communications, or utility infrastructure.”

The legislation also creates a “Building Performance Improvement Board” to be comprised of 15 members ranging from utility representatives to building managers to nonprofits dedicated to racial equity and environmental justice.

The county executive would appoint the 15 members, who would then be confirmed by the County Council. Prospective members must be county residents or working in local government or businesses involved with the county.

The board would provide county officials with recommendations on grouping various building types under specific energy standards, creating interim and final standards for each building type, and establishing technical review and approval processes. It also would recommend how to accommodate sectors in greater need of assistance, like affordable housing, nonprofit organizations and small businesses—and the board would help enforce the overall standards. 

If building owners or managers cannot comply with the legislation, they would be required to submit a “building performance improvement plan” to the county’s Department of Environmental Protection that outlines potential improvements, financial reasons why goals can’t be met and other details.

The penalty for noncompliance is a $500 fine for a first offense, and then a $750 fine for each repeat offenses, according to the legislation. 

One of the issues that county officials and the County Council had focused on during deliberations is whether state legislation on building energy performance standards, passed by lawmakers in Annapolis earlier this month, might preempt local laws. Hogan let the state bill become law without his signature. 

County officials had previously told the council’s Transportation and Environment committee that the state bill is silent on the issue.

State Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-University Park) was lead sponsor of the state legislation, which focuses on more issues than just building energy performance standards. He told reporters on Wednesday that he didn’t believe the state legislation would preempt Montgomery County’s bill because it doesn’t explicitly address that issue and previous bills on a variety of issues have allowed local jurisdictions to be more rigorous in their laws. 

Pinsky, who said he hasn’t read the county’s bill, said he would be open to tweaking the state’s legislation in future legislative sessions if the county sets a good model for the state to follow.

“Look, nothing is ever perfect,” Pinsky said. “And if there are success stories in jurisdictions like Montgomery [County], we clearly will look at them.”

How does the state bill compare with the local bill, and what’s next?

County officials said this week that they’re still comparing the two pieces of legislation. Adriana Hochberg, the county’s climate change officer and acting director of the Department of Environmental Protection, told reporters this week that one difference is that the state bill only applies to buildings with a gross floor area of 35,000 feet or more, versus the county’s standard of 25,000 feet.

Both mention “energy use intensity,” which will be a key metric in devising the regulations needed to implement the standards at the state and local level. Energy use intensity measures how efficiently buildings are using energy and the metric can help officials compare buildings of various types.

For example, a single-family home might have a lower EUI than a multifamily building, and a hospital or laboratory might have a higher EUI than an office building given energy use per square foot.

Before the council passed its bill Tuesday, members acknowledged that difficult policy work lay ahead as county officials begin working with industry leaders to develop the regulations required by the bill, which must be finalized by the end of 2023.

“We intend to have a very public [and] transparent process,” Hochberg said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com