Houses Green By October


The word of the evening at Southampton Town Hall on Tuesday was “tweak,” as the town board decided to incorporate energy conservation standards into its building code. Specifically the law, which was adopted by a four to one vote, mandates all new residential buildings and substantial reconstructions meet New York State Energy Star guidelines, and that all heated swimming pools be solar powered. In a letter of support, Long Island Power Authority CEO Kevin Law described the new law, which takes effect October 1, as going “beyond parameters of previously adopted codes.” Law called it the “strongest initiative of its type in the state.”

It was the second public hearing on the law that was pioneered by councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst and when time came to make the motion to either close or adjourn the hearing, she weighed in.

“My mother had a lot of favorite expressions,” she began. “One was consider the source — let’s consider the source of what we’re hearing tonight and really think about that.”

The hearing included testimony from oil men, pool guys and environmental advocates, some of whom supported the law as written and some who wanted to see a little “tweaking.”

“We’re not telling people they can’t build big houses or heat their pools, we’re just telling them they need to do it responsibly,” she said. “Rather than going on and on, tabling and re-tabling, we can do something that really matters tonight, but with a commitment to keep tweaking.”

Throne-Holst said it was an opportunity to avoid the past accusations of being a board that is “sitting in the lap of the developers, letting big home builders go ahead without taking responsibility for the little people.”

Councilman Dan Russo said he was also in favor of closing the hearing.

“In the short time I’ve been here it’s dawned on me that we take mundane legislation and tweak it to death,” said Russo. “We’re in the grips of energy crisis. Let’s take the leap of faith and tweak it down the road if we need to. Let’s get this done tonight.”

Council members Nancy Graboski and Chris Nuzzi both opposed closing the hearing and each cited testimony from audience members and concerns that the law needed more “tweaking.” Supervisor Linda Kabot, though, voted in favor to close the hearing and made the motion to adopt. Graboski ended up voting in favor of the resolution but with reservation, while Nuzzi said he had to submit a “vote of conscience” and remain in opposition. Though she voted in its favor, Kabot addressed her “mixed feelings” concerning the law.

“Everyone knows me as someone who is a stickler for procedural compliance, as being very [detail oriented]. I will be voting in favor,” said the supervisor. “I want to make sure we send a message of being on the cutting edge, of being progressive. I don’t want a vote of form over substance. However there are many concerns and going forward we may need to tweak this.”

The many references to “tweaking” the law highlighted just how progressive it really is. So far eight other towns on Long Island, including Islip, Brookhaven and Oyster Bay, have adopted similar laws but none as stringent. The main difference is a tiered approached to the Energy Star rating. The law requires that any new home meet certain standards for energy conservation and the bigger the home, the higher the standards.

A 3,500 square foot home, for example, must obtain a HERS (Home Energy Rating System) rating of 84. According to town building inspector Michael Benincasa, reaching such a score might only mean installing Energy Star rated appliances, or simply having a home’s ducts pressurized. He estimated the cost to be $2,000 to $5,000. Then, a certified HERS rater would have to test the home at an additional cost of roughly $750 to $1,200. In theory the additional upfront costs will be paid back over a short period of time through energy savings.

As the size of the home increases, so does the mandated HERS rating. The higher the HERS rating to be obtained, the more money it will cost a builder. Throne-Holst said it was time the larger homes began to take responsibility for using more energy and reminded everyone in the room of the town’s recent struggle with LIPA over their new transmission line.

At the highest end, a 6,500 square foot house would need to obtain a HERS rating of 95. Benincasa said a 95 rating would mean installing state of the art equipment, Energy Star lighting fixtures, the sealing of ducts and insulation and perhaps incorporating alternative sources of energy such as solar or wind. Throne-Holst said she believed the people building a 6,500 square foot house should have no problem spending the kind of money needed to reach the higher HERS rating.

Criticism came from builders who thought the town might be moving too fast and being too bold. Some favored a phasing in of the ratings system so local architects and builders could get up to speed on the different types of technology. Some raised concerns over the vague definition of “substantially reconstructed,” which Benincasa described as any reconstruction that requires a building being taken down to its “shell.” Others brought up historic homes and questioned whether the law would apply since such reconstruction would be necessary by nature.

And numerous people spoke out against the solar-heated pools portion of the law, specifically in terms of current pools heated by gas or electric pumps, and whether or not solar would be required when the present heaters break. The law states that solar would have to replace the gas heaters and heat pumps.

Photo: Town council members Anna Throne-Holst and Chris Nuzzi at Tuesday’s town board meeting.