Building Managers, Developers Push Back On Environmental Bills

Bethesda office buildingSome commercial real estate developers aren’t so keen on a package of environmental bills in front of the County Council, specifically one measure that would require building owners to measure their energy efficiency and ensure their energy efficiency equipment is working properly.

At a Council committee public hearing Tuesday on a package of 13 environmental bills, a few commercial real estate representatives testified against the idea of the benchmarking measure and a separate bill that would require new commercial buildings to meet Silver LEED certification.

Councilmember Roger Berliner, who introduced the bills in January, defended his proposals by saying they are modeled on laws in other jurisdictions. Berliner has support from the majority of the Council on all 13 bills. The Berliner-chaired Energy Committee will hold a worksession on the measures on Feb. 26.

“Montgomery County is in a double-dip recession the likes of which it’s never seen. The federal government’s impact in Montgomery County will be declining in the next 20 years, which means we’re going to need to rely heavily on private sector growth for our economy,” said Charles Nulsen, president of the Bethesda-based Washington Property Company. “We have an A- grade in environmental stewardship. We have an F in economic stewardship. We should concentrate on pulling that economic grade up to a C.”

Nulsen said the benchmarking bill — which would require building owners to periodically measure and make public their energy efficiency stats — would add about 12 days of extra work for building owners. He based that on inquiries to D.C. building owners who must comply with a similar law.

Stephen Elmendorf, a Bethesda attorney representing the Maryland/D.C. Chapter of the Commercial Real Estate Development Association, said the Silver LEED requirement could stall development away from Metro stations.

Updated Silver LEED standards coming in 2015 would make it more difficult for buildings outside of Metro station areas to achieve Silver LEED status.

“There should be no rush to judgement. The requirements for a building to be certified under LEED has changed dramatically,” Elmendorf said. “New commercial and multi-family buildings outside of Metro station policy areas may have a very difficult time achieving a Silver LEED rating.”

Elmendorf questioned how the law would work with the county’s push to convert aging strip shopping centers into mixed-use, walkable developments. He suggested different standards for new buildings near a Metro station and new buildings out of range from Metro.

“I’m going to need you to explain to us — I think it’s 50 other jurisdictions have adopted these measures. I need to know how it is our community will struggle more than others,” Berliner told Elmendorf. “This is not the Montgomery County Council making this up. This is something that’s been adopted in many, many jurisdictions.”

The package also includes bills to make installing solar panels easier, get the county government to up its use of renewable energy and require electric vehicle charging stations in new development.

The bills have County Executive Isiah Leggett’s support. The Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce supports the intent of the bills, though vice president of policy Ilaya Hopkins said the Chamber would like to remain involved as the bills get hammered out in committee.

Among those testifying in support on Tuesday were a number of energy efficiency companies and the Montgomery County Sierra Club.

But Nulsen, who said large office vacancy rates have led to a 30 percent decrease in the amount of property tax his company generates, remained wary. He also said building owners are working hard to up energy efficiency on their own to achieve cost savings.

“For us to highlight this to our commercial tenants who want to do business and move into Montgomery County is extremely poor marketing,” Nulsen said. “It is also a terrible time for us to be implementing things making burdens for the commercial office community.”

PDF: Berliner Environmental Package, memo and fact sheet

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