SUPERIOR — When Jenny Lane and her family were evacuated from their home due to the Marshall Fire, they were stuck on 88th Street in Superior watching smoke come their way, wondering if they were going to have to get out and run from their cars.
Today, she along with numerous others are wondering if a push for costly green energy requirements in new building codes will force them to run from the town they once loved.
Lane was one of several dozen victims of the devastating fire that burned more than 1,000 homes and businesses in Boulder County on Dec. 30, 2021 who testified before the Superior Town Trustees on February 14th about the pain and suffering that they have been through since in trying to rebuild their lives and homes.
And although everyone who testified asked for more help rather than more roadblocks, the Trustees put off until yet another meeting to decide whether to adopt the new codes that could push the price of rebuilding—according to some estimates—by many thousands more in additional costs not covered by insurance.
Don’t kick us when we’re down
“This is not the right time for the energy code,” Lane said. “Based on how old these houses were, just by virtue of the code that is in place now would bring them up significantly. I feel this is really more for political gain and a feather in your cap. It’s an insult to the people who did lose their houses.”
Loretta Chavez said she feels like the town wants the long-time residents to leave. She asked board members to return to a time when neighbors helped neighbors.
“We’ve been here, some of us almost 80 years,” Chavez said through tears. “Why are you making it so hard for us? Just let us do what we have to do. We can’t afford to build a home under this policy, not even a modular.”
The two women were referring to the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) that the town has planned to adopt for several months. In January, the Trustees put off discussing it further, at that time saying the matter was tabled indefinitely, but then brought it back at its February 14th meeting after Xcel Energy made promises of rebates–that the monopoly utility can’t actually guarantee–for fire victims who couldn’t afford the additional cost.
At odds, however, is just exactly how much the new codes will cost residents versus how much they might get in rebates to offset the cost. Environmental advocates brought in by the Superior town staff gave estimates of about $5,000 in incremental increases to the cost of building, but some say that number is far below reality.
One resident, who reported losing three investment properties in the fire, said based on his conversations with electricians and other contractors that the cost estimates to build under the new green energy code are much higher than the town staff is reporting. He added that people cannot afford the added cost of making sure homes are solar ready, electric vehicle charging ready, and all-electrification ready, stating it will be between $350 to $400 per square foot to rebuild. “It’s going to take a hell of a lot of money to rebuild, and there is a lot more to this 2021 code than they are letting on with the costs, and it’s far more significant than what they are claiming,” he said.
At $350, the average 2,000 square-foot home would cost at minimum $700,000 to rebuild, many times more than most of the Superior homes are insured for because they were built 50 years or more ago.
Several dozen residents spoke about the added burden the new code would cause, repeating over and over that they felt like they were being kicked while they were down.
Town Trustee Neal Shah, reminded his colleagues that even if the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP)’s estimate of $5,000 is accurate, that is for the difference to upgrade from the 2018 code to the 2021 code. Because of the age of the homes in question, Shah said, allowing them to build under the 2018 code would already be a significant increase in energy efficiency and not place an undue burden on them.
“The fact that there is a 10 percent reduction in greenhouse gasses from 2018 to 2021 is not lost on me,” Shah said. “But the fact is, some of these homes were built in 1940, 1960, 1990. Stepping it up to 2018 is already a massive reduction in greenhouse gasses. Let’s celebrate that for what it is, and not waste four hours on this conversation. In January, we said we were tabling this indefinitely.”
Promises without guarantees
“The only reason we brought It back is because Xcel said ‘We think we have some incentives,’ Shah continued. “They still (only) think they have some incentives. We have not gotten a straight answer from them on anything tonight, just conjectures and more uncertainty. The last thing these homeowners need right now is any more uncertainty.”
Representatives from Xcel were at the meeting trying to explain those incentives, which includes a $7,500 rebate for Marshall Fire victims who rebuild under the 2021 code, but only if the town adopts the code as a requirement. Xcel claims additional rebates up to $30,000 could be available for anybody who wants to go above and beyond the 2021 code.
None of the rebates are guaranteed however, as Xcel must clear them through the Public Utilities Commission.
Also present at the meeting was Will Toor, Executive Director of the Colorado Energy Office, who also promised help from the state for Marshall Fire victims, which he also couldn’t guarantee as it needs legislative approval, and no bills have currently been introduced.
Toor, who called it a “strong commitment” from the state, also said the state’s help, if granted by the legislature, was not aimed at helping fire victims meet the basics of the new code, but rather those who wanted to exceed the new codes.
“I can’t give any details at this time,” Toor said. “From the state’s perspective we’re not focused on the code element so much as providing resources for individuals who are rebuilding and may want to go beyond whatever the code is that is adopted at the local level.”
All but about 15 minutes of the five and one-half hour meeting was spent discussing the new green energy code, with about half that in public comment, one fire victim after another taking the microphone to tell trustees how abandoned by the town they felt.
Exempting fire victims
Although all of the town trustees appeared in favor of the code in general, most also agreed that it should not be required for Marshall Fire victims, but they still couldn’t come to a consensus.
What they could not agree on was how to separate new construction from rebuilds under the code. Town staff pushed for the board to implement the code as presented — which would require the fire victims to meet the much more stringent codes — and town attorney Kendra Carberry appeared frustrated at times as they discussed her needing to draft a new resolution and add a timeline for that to be voted on.
Shah asked staff to find a way that fire victims may be able to opt into the new code if they wanted to take advantage of the possible Xcel rebates. But he did not want to restrict all fire victims to the requirement that they had to build to the new standard if they did not have the capability or desire to do so.
“If we can find a way to let people opt in and get the rebate, everybody wins,” Shah said. “But the thing this board is going to struggle with is adopting this code just to get these funds because it’s going to put a lot of people on the wrong side of the balanced equation.”
Trustee Paige Henchen agreed with Shah, adding the board needed to put pressure on Xcel and the state to make rebates fair and equal for all Superior residents wanting to upgrade under the new standards — regardless of whether the home was a fire rebuild or an existing structure.
Trustee Tim Howard wanted to rewrite the code so that fire victims were not required to follow it but all new builds would, a number that he estimated at about 400 homes currently in the queue in Superior. Carberry appeared to be frustrated by that option, saying it would be complicated to write into ordinance because there were too many variables such as what if somebody sold their land and a new owner came in and wanted to build a bigger house. Would that new owner still be allowed to build under the 2018 code rather than the 2021 code, Carberry asked.
Howard said yes. He believed it should be written as simple as possible, based on an address, not on who owned it or how big it was when it was burned.
Trustee Ken Lish reminded his colleagues of their past discussions.
“Our general position to date has been we weren’t going to require standards that would make it more onerous,” Lish said. “We all want greener standards, but to ask residents to pay up and meet a higher standard is a difficult task right now. We will probably have a lot of people that will want to do this, but on their terms, not forced to do it.”
In the end, although the majority of the board seemed headed in the direction of not requiring the new standards for fire victims, the board voted 5-2 (Shah and Henchen the two dissenting votes) to continue the meeting and public hearing to February 28th, when they will continue discussion on how to handle the 2021 IECC code for fire victims.
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