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September 21, 2014

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Las Vegas waives energy efficiency standards for older buildings

Updated Wednesday, June 19, 2013 | 5:20 p.m.

Bob Beers

Bob Beers

Renovating and rehabilitating older buildings in downtown Las Vegas will be a bit easier and cheaper after the city council voted Wednesday to relax its energy efficiency standards.

The issue: The council considered a bill that would exempt buildings constructed before 2009 from the city’s energy code.

The vote: Approved 4 to 3, with Councilmen Ricki Barlow, Steve Ross and Councilwoman Lois Tarkanian in opposition.

What it means: Energy efficiency regulations governing insulation, lighting, air conditioning units and other systems won’t be enforced for older commercial buildings.

Some, including the bill’s sponsor Councilman Bob Beers, argued that the energy code requirements were overly burdensome on small businesses, especially those seeking to renovate drafty buildings downtown.

Although he’s supportive of sustainability efforts, Beers said requiring businesses to invest in energy efficiency improvements that won’t necessarily be paid back through lower electricity bills is unfair.

“We end up in a situation where our very well intentioned efforts to mandate sustainability have resulted in an investment by one of our citizens having to be made that just won’t ever get a return,” he said.

Beers seemed to be referring to Mingo Kitchen & Lounge, a downtown restaurant that recently opened in a converted garage and has become a main example of the negative effects of the energy code. One of the owner’s behind the project, George Harris, said during a hearing last month on the energy code that he was required to spend $34,000 on insulation and other improvements that won’t make his building more efficient because of its open air layout.

How to balance business development with sustainability split the city council and drew protests from architects, engineers and other sustainability advocates who vocally opposed any changes to the energy code.

Opponents of the bill contended that there’s already flexibility written into the energy code that allows buildings to meet the required standards in a way that is affordable and works best for the business owners. A waiver process does exist to allow exemptions in special cases, leaving no reason to throw out the entire code just for older buildings, they argued.

Councilman Steve Ross said Mingo was the only specific complaint he’s heard about the energy code and that loosening the codes would be a step backward for a city that prides itself on being a leader in sustainability.

“We’ve worked too hard and come to far on our sustainability initiatives,” Ross said. “We can’t go backwards. I’m even shocked we’re having this conversation … I am in no way, shape or form, going to support this bill.”

Another factor complicating the council’s decision was that changes would put the city in conflict with the state version of the energy code, which sets the minimum standards for Nevada.

A letter earlier this month from the state Attorney General warned the city that the office would not support any changes to the energy code, meaning a legal challenge could be forthcoming, Las Vegas City Attorney Brad Jerbic said.

The city does have the authority to make minor tweaks to its version of the code to account for “local conditions” and it could find some legal cover for the changes if it can show the code was adversely affecting economic development, Jerbic said.

After more than an hour of public comment and discussion, the council found itself split evenly heading into the final vote, with only Mayor Carolyn Goodman seemingly undecided.

Although she said both sides of the issue had valid points, Goodman ultimately cast the deciding vote in favor of passing an amended version of Beers’ bill that only applies to commercial buildings.

“I see both sides,” she said, “but I’m terribly concerned about the small business who’s made to comply with certain codes that he can’t afford.”

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