AYER - Half the audience at a March 23 Stretch Code question-and-answer session at Town Hall were builders and developers of homes and commercial structures. Tension was "built" into the meeting between proponents of the energy-forward, alternative building code -- and the developers on the front lines who are building, renovating and selling the end product.
Developer Jim Wheeler said it's increasingly difficult to pass on any added costs to homebuyers. Homes built and sold several years ago for $400,000 now sell for $280,000, he said.
"With all the other code changes we have to do already, our costs are going sky high," said Wheeler. "The town has to think about this."
Marianne Graham, a consultant retained to help Ayer with its Green Communities application, said the state's goal is to reward all newly joined communities in year one. Selectman Carolyn McCreary estimated first year grants to be upwards of $150,000 to $200,000.
In following years, however, "it will be competitively based," said Graham.
Ayer builder Mark Canney said as more towns obtain Green Community status, the less money there'll be to spread around. "What's the guarantee? So all of a sudden a $150,000 grant is $15,000 down the road with an expense to the town to meet these requirements and then everybody's stuck with the bill."
Canney's brother, David Canney, said: "One and one still has to make two. Everyone has everything figured out except how does the builder retrieve over a three-year period the added costs of $18,000 a year. We're selling houses at 15- to 20-percent less than we used to. Who's figuring out that chart?"
"Who's going to oversee this?" asked Ayer developer Rick Roper. "Who's paying?"
The Department of Energy Resources (DOER) oversees the program, funded with "RGGI funds." Ultimately, utility users foot the bill.
Massachusetts is one of 10 New England and mid-Atlantic states participating in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI). The 200 fossil-fueled utilities (including 30 in Massachusetts) pay for each ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere above regional caps.
There is some unease in the RGGI program, however. In New Hampshire, the House of Representatives recently voted to withdraw from RGGI. The Senate takes it up next. In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie said RGGI is under close scrutiny by his administration.
Ayer Energy Committee member Alan Wilson asked about RGGI's future. "Cap-and-trade is not finding favor anymore."
"There have always been non-believers, let's put it that way," said Graham. "I'm not a good forecaster as to whether RGGI funds will continue or not."
"I'm generally skeptical of these top-down programs," said Selectman Frank Maxant, calling the Stretch Code "feel- good programming that doesn't have any relation to the real world. Why aren't we sitting on a glacier now? Wooly mammoth flatulence?"
Maxant said Henry Ford would have been directed under such top-down edicts to "make a faster horse with fewer droppings. We're ahead now because they make sense in the marketplace but it makes no sense to force things on the market.... Let the market decide."
Roper agreed, calling the added building costs, "the unintended consequences of bureaucrats sitting in cubicles. They're not out on the street. They don't understand the problems they cause, though they're well intentioned."
Builder Bill Hamel asked if home appraisals capture the added value of energy upgrades. Not yet, said Greg Krantz, an associate from ICF Consulting and certified HERS home inspector. "The appraisers have to realize this is a better home. This is something the US EPA is trying to teach them. There is a methodology out there that many aren't using."
Commercial developer Bob France lauded Krantz for his "thick skin" among the builders. But France asked, "Why not let it be consumer-driven? If I want a HERS 70, then I'm going to find a HERS 70 home...I'm always a bit surprised when the government feels compelled to drive something down the throat of our industry."
France said: "What's the overall impact of taking on this code versus other states that are not adopting this code? We're competing with the Carolinas, then give away tax incentives for businesses to come to our state."
"I'm hearing a lot of discussion about this tonight," said Graham. "Maybe it's appropriate to ask those questions at a state level. You're asking about bigger economic- development issues."
Kelly Brown of the DOER brought the debate full circle. "It IS optional. Some vote on it, some vote not to. It shouldn't be just to get the grant funding."
Despite the lively debate, the meeting ended in a truce. "I'm not here as a salesman and I've tried to be straight forward," said Krantz. "Yes you have," agreed Roper along with many in the room.
"I'm real glad I'm 60 and headed for retirement because I can't see us doing this for another 15 years," said Wheeler.
But Mark Canney closed: "We've all got to do our part. We've got to change."