Practical, Popular and Dead

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Print this page Nicole Anderson Ellis

Virginia’s state agencies spent roughly $310 million on energy and utility expenses in 2008.  That’s up 67 percent from the $185 million spent five years ago, according to a report that came out of the Virginia Senate Finance Committee.  Thanks in part to rising fuel prices and increased electricity consumption, that figure keeps climbing.

Sen. J. Chapman Petersen (D - Fairfax) sought to curb this trend when he proposed the Green Public Buildings Act (SB1252) during this year’s session of the General Assembly.  It required all major public construction and renovation projects at the state, county and municipal levels to meet efficiency rating standards set by two industry leaders: Green Globes Green Building Initiative or the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED). 

Aside from the environmental benefits (buildings account for 40 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S.), the bill sought fiscal dividends.  In 2007, when South Carolina passed a law mandating LEED-silver certification in state construction, the Energy Office of South Carolina estimated a net savings of $10 million over 30 years.

“That’s why developers build green buildings every day,” says Lynn Rogien, a project manager in commercial construction and co-chair of the Advocacy Committee of the James River Green Building
Council.  “For Virginia [mandatory efficiency standards] means less tax dollars to run these buildings.  Senate Bill 1252 was practical.”

Practical and popular. In addition to backing by Virginia’s Green Building Councils and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (Petersen sponsored the bill at the governor’s request), the legislation drew unexpected fans. Virginia’s foresters, the Virginia Farm Bureau and the Virginia Association of Counties all supported the legislation.

Riding this tide of support, it passed unanimously in the Senate and the House Committee on General Laws. “I felt like it had a lot of momentum,” says Petersen,  who hadproposed a similar bill in 2000. 
“It’s a great bill,” agrees Del. Riley Ingram (R -Hopewell), who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Capital Outlay where the bill died.  “But this is a tough year as far as money goes.  I don’t think the state should make localities do things without sending them the money.” 

On average, a green project can cost 3 percent more than conventional construction.  Depending on the scope of the project, it can take two to eight years for the low heating and cooling costs to recoup the initial investment. 

“As originally presented [SB1252] clearly looked like an unfunded mandate,” admits Phyllis Errico, general counsel for VACo (the Virginia Association of Counties).  But the final version included exemptions and delays for localities.  That satisfied the association, which represents all 95 Virginia counties.

Despite this year’s failure, Petersen plans to keep at it.  After all, numerous states, including Maryland, New Jersey and Florida, have already passed a green building code, so Virginia is behind the curve.  “I’ll go back and look at it and see what I can do differently,” he says.

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