, Newburyport, MA

December 3, 2012

Digging into the Stretch Code

Officials tout benefits amid questions on bill's restrictions

By Mac Cerullo
Staff Writer

---- — AMESBURY — As Amesbury debates whether to adopt a more energy-efficient building code, city officials brought in a panel of experts last week to explain what the Stretch Code is and what would actually happen if it was implemented.

Residents filled City Hall lto hear local builders, Newburyport officials familiar with the code and representatives from the state’s Green Communities Program present the workshop organized by City Councilor Christian Scorzoni, who is one of the chief sponsors of the Stretch Code bill.

The Stretch Energy Building Code, or Stretch Code for short, is an alternative state building code that emphasizes energy efficiency and has tighter building requirements for both residential and commercial projects. Communities can choose to adopt the Stretch Code over the state’s standard building code, with the hope of reducing long-term energy costs.

So far, the Stretch Code has been adopted in 122 communities in Massachusetts, including Newburyport, which implemented it last summer.

Michael Berry, a manager of new residential construction for ICF International, highlighted the benefits of the Stretch Code compared to the state’s base code.

“The Stretch Code is 15 to 20 percent more energy efficient than our base code,” Berry said. “So in Newburyport, homes that are being built are 15 to 20 percent more energy efficient than they are in Amesbury, right off the bat.”

Berry said that the biggest challenge of the Stretch Code comes with new, single-family construction, but noted that next summer, the state will implement a new standard building code that will be very similar to the current Stretch Code.

“Towns that adopted the Stretch Code are adopting a code that’s very similar to the one that’s going to come sooner than later,” Berry said. “So they’re ahead of the curve.”

Berry also addressed a number of common misconceptions regarding the Stretch Code, including the notion that building an addition on a house would require the property owner to bnring the entire house up to code. Berry said only the area affected has to be up to code when doing an addition or renovation.

He also explained that the code doesn’t apply to registered historical sites either.

“If you’re in a local historical district, those homes are exempt,” Berry said. “You don’t have to put in a special window that won’t look right on a historic home.”

Adopting the Stretch Code is one of the five requirements that communities must meet before they can receive Green Community designation from the state, said Joanne Bissetta, regional director of the Green Communities Program.

In addition to the Stretch Code, the other required criteria are providing zoning for renewable energy-generating, research and development or manufacturing facilities; adopting an expedited application and permit process for those facilities, developing a plan to reduce energy use by 20 percent within five years and purchasing fuel-efficient vehicles only.

So far, Amesbury has met the zoning requirement and is close to meeting the permitting one, according to Scorzoni. He said the third and fourth requirements won’t be difficult and that the Stretch Code would likely be the biggest hurdle.

Communities that receive Green Community designation from the state are eligible for up to $10 million in state grant funds that can be used toward green energy projects. Scorzoni added that Green Communities also have an edge in other grant processes, making the designation advantageous from that standpoint as well.

Newburyport resident Sarah Holden and that city’s recycling coordinator, Molly Ettenborough, who were both heavily involved in their community’s Green Communities push, said they haven’t experienced any issues with the Stretch Code.

“Since July of 2011, we’ve had upwards of 20 new single-family residential projects in Newburyport, and we’ve not heard of any problems with these projects,” Holden said.

The majority of residents’ questions concerned areas where the code could potentially prove burdensome. City Councilor Donna McClure pointed out that when Springfield was hit by a tornado last summer, insurance companies didn’t cover the difference between what was destroyed and what was mandated by the Stretch Code.

Former City Councilor Stephen Dunford said he didn’t think the Stretch Code would have a positive impact on Amesbury, arguing that the city would be paying to support a government bureaucracy when it had previously made green energy strides on its own by installing solar panels in the community.

“It would be much more efficient if we did it locally,” Dunford said. “We could put up our own four metal signs saying that we’re a pseudo-green community, and I think we could do a much better job than by writing grants to the Green Communities Act.”

But Scorzoni said that even though the solar panels weren’t paid for with Green Community funds, they were built with federal stimulus money. And Ettenborough challenged Dunford’s line of reasoning further, saying that being a Green Community hadn’t directly added any costs to Newburyport’s budget.

“The builders are going to build the homes and the residents are going to pay for them,” Ettenborough said. “There’s nothing else that we as a community or Amesbury has to pay for to be a green community.”

One resident said she’d heard all the positives, but wanted to hear more of the negatives before a decision was made. Scorzoni said the workshop was simply an extra step in the legislative process. Several public meetings on the issue are planned for December and the matter will be on the City Council’s Dec. 11 meeting agenda.