Berkeley is not moving fast enough toward its Climate Action Plan goals, says city staff. Image: City of Berkeley
Berkeley is not moving fast enough toward its Climate Action Plan goals, says city staff. Image: City of Berkeley

The Berkeley City Council unanimously adopted a new law Tuesday night aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by making local buildings more sustainable, but included carve-outs — at least initially — for properties with up to four units.

Many Berkeley homeowners had expressed concern in recent months about the new law, which would have required energy audits by homeowners every 10 years, as well as the payment of new fees to the city.

The city has described the new energy law as a critical part of Berkeley’s Climate Action Plan, which the voters approved in 2006. The plan calls for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 2000 levels by 2050, and set a 33% reduction goal by 2020.

Previously, the city used RECO and CECO to create a mandatory list of minimum energy and water saving measures for local buildings. These had to be installed in all buildings at the point of sale, or during significant remodels. The city said these laws worked well and helped achieve some emissions reductions, but that more stringent steps, on a more aggressive and frequent schedule, must be taken if Berkeley hopes to achieve its ambitious climate action goals.

The new law, called the Building Energy Saving Ordinance, or BESO, will replace RECO and CECO.

Read a brief presentation from Tuesday night’s council meeting.

As it was first discussed, BESO would have required the payment of a $79-$240 filing fee, depending on building size, by property owners every 5-10 years. On top of that, property owners were set to be required to undergo building energy assessments on the same cycle, conducted by registered contractors, to the tune of an estimated $200 for a single-family home and up to $10,000 for large commercial buildings.

Council approved the law in preliminary fashion late last year, but said Tuesday that changes were needed because of frustration expressed by homeowners, including many who felt the city did not do enough to let them know about the law and collect feedback in advance. City staff has been working on those adjustments, and presented several alternatives to council this week.

Under the version of the law passed Tuesday night, properties with up to four units — including single-family homes — will be required to undertake an energy audit only when the property changes hands. Council will reconsider whether to extend the new requirements to those buildings by 2018.

That means that Berkeley is not likely to make progress as quickly in meeting its Climate Action Plan goals, according to the staff report prepared for Tuesday’s meeting: “Staff estimates that an ordinance that requires energy assessments of all homes (with the exception of those that qualify for an exemption) would achieve 75% more total energy savings by 2025 than if the ordinance was only applied at the time of sale.” (See the staff report for details.)

Council members said Tuesday night, however, that homeowners were not ready for the shift, and had not been included closely enough in the process. The Berkeley Energy Commission held three public workshops since 2013 to collect input, and groups like the city’s Housing Advisory Commission and Rent Board also weighed in. Still, many local residents told council that they had not been informed, and said the city needs to do more public outreach before making the switch.

Said Councilwoman Susan Wengraf: “Here we are imposing huge fees on property owners and not telling them that we’re going to do it. Most of the comments that I’ve received and I’ve received hundreds… reflect a sense of outrage from the public that the city is about to mandate and require and criminalize people who don’t participate, and that is really the wrong approach. If you want something to be successful, you have to build a community effort around it.”

Councilwoman Linda Maio said the city might want to consider sending written notices to all homeowners when it comes time to consider the law again.

Councilman Max Anderson said the city needs to do more to spread the word through “unofficial channels,” rather than relying solely on established groups and city panels. He and other officials said too that they are concerned about the impact on low-income residents and seniors. They will be eligible to apply for exemption from the program, but council members said they weren’t sure that process would be accessible enough.

“There’s been a lot of discussion in the community about this, but not enough I don’t think,” Anderson said. “We need to redouble our efforts in outreach and education.”

Requirements for properties with five units or more, and for large buildings, have not changed from the November 2014 proposal.

As described in the staff report: “A phased-in compliance period for large buildings would begin in 2016; owners of large buildings (25,000 square feet or more) would be required to report energy use annually and conduct an energy efficiency assessment every 5 years. The phase-in period for medium-sized buildings (5,000 – 24,999 square feet) would begin in 2018, and would require building owners to conduct an energy efficiency assessment every 8 years or at the time of sale, whichever comes first. Small commercial buildings (up to 5,000 square feet) would be phased-in starting in 2020 and would require building owners to conduct an energy efficiency assessment every 10 years or at the time of sale, whichever comes first.”

Read more about the Climate Action Plan on the city website. Progress reports are also posted online. A list of frequently asked questions about the new law appear on page 8 of the staff report.

Correction: A quote was incorrectly attributed to Councilwoman Linda Maio instead of Councilwoman Susan Wengraf in the original story. We apologize for the error.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...