ITHACA, N.Y. –– It was St. Patrick’s Day, but the only ‘green’ on the minds of the Ithaca Common Council’s Planning and Economic Development Committee (PEDC) last night was the Green Building Policy, otherwise known as the Ithaca Energy Code Supplement. It was a short agenda last night, and perhaps the shortest meeting this reporter has clocked for the PEDC at 85 minutes from start to finish. A copy of last night’s agenda can be downloaded for your viewing pleasure here.

CARES Act Funding for GIAC, Community Outreach Worker

There were two Special Orders of Business last night, and both had to deal with Round 2 COVID-19 Community Development Block Grant funds or “CDBG-CV2” funds. Basically, those dollars are federal grant funds approved by the CARES Act last year. The CARES Act funding was not designed to be disbursed all at once, and a second round of funds totaling $294,370 was awarded in September and is finally available for use.

The funds have fairly few limitations other than that they must in some way prevent, prepare for, or respond to COVID-19 impacts. In its interpretation, the Ithaca Urban Renewal Agency (IURA), which is in charge of administering CDBG funds, recommended these second-round dollars be considered for programs normally funded in the city budget that serve low-to moderate-income people, address the impacts of COVID-19, and would otherwise be endangered or not be able to operate due to the financial hits dealt to the city’s budget by the pandemic.

Of the $294,370, $240,000 is being allocated towards filling those budget gaps. $175,000 would support youth programming and activities at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC), and $65,000 would fund the city’s Community Outreach Worker. The Outreach Worker travels from Downtown to the West End on the lookout for people showing signs of distress or escalating conflict; oftentimes, these are lower-income and/or homeless individuals who don’t know where to go for help. The Outreach Worker is trained to de-escalate conflicts, engage with the distressed individual, and be able to guide and connect them to help and services depending on each unique situation.

As those of you good with math have probably noticed by now, that leaves $54,370, which along with $8,820 of unallocated CARES Act funds from round one will be rolled over into the general IURA CDBG funding cycle underway right now. The Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan Act, which will practically pour money into local municipalities, is a topic for a later date. As always with grant administration, there needs to be a written public comment period, public hearings, a vote by the PEDC to approve the allocations, and a vote of approval by the full Common Council before any funds may be disbursed. The hearings and PEDC vote were last night.

Neither one of these drew attention in the written or spoken public comment; the public hearing opened and closed with no comment from the general public. All in all, the subject matter is uncontroversial. As explained by IURA Community Development Planner Anisa Mendizabal, the funding is filling COVID-created funding gaps in the budget to pay for well-established programs that serve low-moderate income residents. Other than some funding clarification questions from Councilor Donna Fleming (D-3rd Ward) minor grammatical fixes pointed out by Councilor Cynthia Brock (D-1st), the discussion for each item was minimal and passed unanimously, to head to the full Common Council for final approval next month.

An example scoring for a recently-approved residential project under the rules of the Ithaca Energy Code Supplement.

Ithaca Energy Code Supplement

Back before the PEDC last night was the Ithaca Energy Code Supplement (IECS), informally called the “Green Building Policy.”  IECS is part of the city’s “Green New Deal” plan. After last month’s barrage of questions and one-month delay to allow time to answer them all, the code was coming back before the PEDC last night.

The IECS will require that all new buildings are constructed in such a way to produce 40 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than New York State code requires and will require that new construction be net-zero by 2030. The policy will use a points-based system for new construction projects in Ithaca, which will be awarded points for efficient electrification, affordability improvements, renewable energy and other aspects like walkability and adaptive reuse.

New buildings — both residential and commercial — will need to achieve six points to be approved. For example, under “efficient electrification,” a building can get five points for ground source heat pumps and one more point for electric stoves and ventless heat pump clothes dryers, with a prerequisite being no fossil fuels in the building. Since the August 2019 draft, one awardable point was added for kitchen equipment electrification (vs. gas stoves and the like), and scoring was added for on-site electric vehicle infrastructure. There’s been some debate as to whether more points should be required at the offset or some not-too-distant future date.

The IECS is also circulating for town review as well (both Ithacas, city and town, have adopted the policy), and it will include a reference manual for property owners and builders, the IECS itself, and a copy of the ordinance’s legal language. Once approved, the IECS will become the official policy within a few months, and automatically tighten to a more stringent standard in January 2025. By 2030, only net-zero energy buildings that are free of fossil fuel use will be permitted. As previously pointed out to me by longtime environmental advocate Sara Hess, practically all major building projects underway (all residential or largely residential) have adopted structural designs and engineering systems that will comply with the first (pre-2025) stage of the IECS.

Now, a lot of interest groups have had their hands and eyes on this policy, and almost everyone has had some concern with it (though you’ll never find a common thread; some say it’s too lenient, some too stringent, and many focus on one or two niches of the supplement code). Questions and answers are included in both the agenda and on the IECS website here.

In response to some wanted the 2025 and 2030 standards in place sooner, the revision proposes 2023 and 2026 respectively; as covered last month, the benefits of upgrading right now aren’t that beneficial because it depends on a cleaner electric grid, and it’s going to be a couple of years before all the new and recently proposed solar arrays come online. It also needs a “training period” to make sure it works as intended, and isn’t unfairly penalizing projects such as lower-income housing. The price of technology such as heat pumps and LED lighting is coming down, but still not similar in cost to conventional heat and lighting in some cases; a couple more years will give time for it to achieve better cost parity and not penalize lower-income housing when owners seek new construction or to do renovations.

Some debate was also had last month about the one point for walkability, with some wanting it removed and some wanting it increased; many neighborhoods in the city are walkable, though not all, so it seemed like a freebie for certain neighborhoods, but also not enough to really encourage multi-modal transit (bike facilities, bus facilities, pedestrian comforts and so on). The town didn’t care as most of its development will not qualify (the town’s simply not walkable in most areas), and the recommendation after review was to keep it as-is, one point.

As to be expected, five of the six people in the general public hearing for the meeting were there to speak on the IECS (the seventh was there to speak on the alleged dangers of 5G wireless technology). Bruce and Doug Brittain of Forest Home once again spoke against the Green New Deal, with Bruce saying that unless the grid was 100% renewable you could not have a Green Building Policy. Doug at least made an exception for electric heat pumps, though still preferred a plan that mandated natural gas backups.

Other speakers had their tweaks and suggestions but were supportive of the IECS in principle. Sarah Carson Zemanick, the Director of Cornell’s Sustainability Office, was generally supportive of the IECS, with some tweaks. Zemanick recommended reducing the additional 25% renewable energy generation requirement for off-site facilities, because the amount lost to power lines connecting to those facilities is typically only about 5%, and is therefore excessive. Another Cornell speaker, Sarah Brylinsky, asked that the code be designed to accommodate Cornell’s unique circumstances, noting that 20% of their energy needs are met by renewables now but they are working towards 100% in the years ahead.

For this segment, Sustainability Coordinator Nick Goldsmith and consultant Ian Shapiro of Taitem Engineering joined in, as well as non-committee councilors George McGonigal (D-1st) and Ducson Nguyen (D-2nd). Goldsmith noted that there had been substantial engagement with Cornell and its representatives, with some changes to accommodate the university and its Combined Heat and Power facility. He added that the 25% “devaluation” for off-site facilities was based on state estimates and could be changed to a 10% devaluation, though the city may want to do a focus group evaluation before revising it to a lower devaluation.

“What’s the issue on this question of devaluing off-site?” Asked Councilor Fleming. “Whether I have a panel on my roof or a bunch of wires from a panel several miles away?”

“It’s less about the efficiency and more about the goals it provides in terms of feeding the energy into the grid, positive/negative land-use benefits, and educational value,” said Goldsmith.

“I read farmland is being taken up by solar farms, is that why it’s being devalued by 25%?” Asked Councilor McGonigal. “I think that’s a valid reason to devalue it.”

“That’s part of it,” Goldsmith responded. “Off-site solar is more likely to have negative land-use impacts than solar panels in your backyard.” Goldsmith also made it clear he disagreed with the Brittains’ comments about holding off on electrification of heating. He said that the town is in a similar place as PEDC; they want to accelerate the timeline for 2025 and 2030 standards by perhaps a year or two each, something that he said he was comfortable with. There are small differences in implementation proposed between city and town, but the IECS regulations are the same.

Councilor Brock made it clear she was opposed to cutting out natural gas entirely and was worried that the code supplement could require state legislature approval. “I absolutely recognize the goals for what we’re trying to achieve…I am reluctant to move towards entire reliance on electricity because regardless of the source of electricity, we have gone through periods where our electrical grids fail. When people don’t have electricity but they have the access to gas, they can still heat their home. I’m hesitant to remove that possibility for people given we live in upstate New York.” Brock added that nuclear is part of the grid and noted that it could lead to a nuclear power plant being proposed in Tompkins County again, as it was (and was defeated) in the late 1960s.

“It does have to be filed with New York State once it’s adopted, but once it’s filed it’s a done deal,” said Planning Director JoAnn Cornish. The energy code does not need full legislative approval, because it’s not a formal building code that regulates things like plumbing fixtures and foundation walls. People can build however they want so long as they can earn the points needed to meet the standards. In response to another question from Fleming asking if the code would force the city to hire more staff, Cornish said they plan to have training sessions with code inspectors and so far they don’t see it as necessary to hire additional staff.

“I’m comfortable with moving the 2025 standards to 2023,” said PEDC Chair Seph Murtagh. His council colleagues generally agreed to adopt 2023 for the 2025 standards.

“I appreciate Nick’s very thorough response to all of the comments,” said Councilor Laura Lewis (D-5th). “What’s the role of the new director coming in?”

“Nick will be working on a checklist and training programs for the inspectors, and I don’t see that changing all that much,” said Cornish. “With the new Director of Sustainability, there are other things to be focused on, like our Greenhouse Gas Inventory and the Climate Action Plan. Nick will carry the ball on this training program.”

With that, there was little further discussion. the motion to send to the full council for the final vote passed unanimously. The IECS is now eligible for final approval next month.

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.