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City council votes to eliminate energy-efficiency rules from building code

Las Vegas has gotten a small measure of wonkish celebration from city planners and some elected officials ever since then-Mayor Oscar Goodman signed a pledge in 2005 “to promote climate protection policies and programs” and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, sparking a wholesale effort to promote sustainable-energy policies.

One of those policies was the adoption of rules requiring building owners to adopt potentially expensive energy-efficiency upgrades when older buildings were converted to new uses.

Now Las Vegas can attract attention for being among the first — apparently the very first — city to reverse course and eliminate those requirements from the building codes. A starkly divided Las Vegas City Council tossed the energy-conservation rules that required owners to pay for the upgrades when rehabilitating or refurbishing older buildings, a rule that mostly affected properties downtown.

The vote to cut the energy-efficiency rules affecting building rehabs was 4-3, with Mayor Carolyn Goodman casting the deciding vote. She said several times during the long debate on the issue that she did not believe energy conservation should be a part of the building code.

“As far as mandating anything, I think our whole area should be health and safety,” Goodman said.

Councilman Bob Beers sought the rule after one of his accounting customers, George Harris, was required to spend what Harris said was about $30,000 in changes to a building he was rehabbing, the site of Mingo Kitchen & Lounge in the arts district.

Architects, mechanical engineers and advocates for energy conservation spoke to retain the existing building code. City officials from the building department and the city’s office of sustainability, speaking carefully and urged by City Manager Betsy Fretwell to avoid either endorsing or condemning the proposal, said the existing rule was flexible, allowed for waivers, was in compliance with state law and did not stop growth and development downtown.

Council members Steve Ross and Lois Tarkanian also argued against the rule change. (Councilman Ricky Barlow joined them in the vote.) Ross noted that Las Vegas has been hailed as an example of good energy-planning.

“We were gung-ho in regards to our sustainability initiatives,” he said, arguing that that only dissatisfied downtown developer was Harris, a firebrand conservative.

“We can’t go backwards. I am even shocked we are having this conversation. Are we having this discussion over one business?” Ross asked.

“All the other cities say they want to be like us,” Tarkanian said. “We have a great reputation. We have shown great leadership.”

Beers agreed that when the energy-efficiency rules were passed, there was no opposition, but he compared that acquiescence to the acceptance of rules in “World War II Germany.” He said companies would have complained about the rules but “fear retribution.” And Beers ridiculed the process for seeking a waiver to the rules, which would include working with city staff and then turning to the Nevada State Energy Office.

“The avenue for appeal is Carson City?” the former state legislator asked. “Are you kidding? I am not surprised no one has appealed.”

Councilman Bob Coffin, who sided with Beers and Councilman Stavros Anthony in the debate, said dumping the rules would not destroy Las Vegas’ reputation for energy efficiency and sustainability because the rule only affects older buildings built before 2009, and not new buildings now under construction.

“All the awards we get, we’re going to keep getting them,” said Coffin, who noted that he drives an electric hybrid. “I’m as green as can be but I’m voting for this bill.”

Coffin earlier in the meeting scolded a local architect and president of the Nevada Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, Jennifer Turchin, for questioning the appropriateness of Beers’ involvement in the vote. City Attorney Brad Jerbic said that since the Harris project was over, there was no conflict for Beers.

Public speakers for the rule change included a representative from the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce and a real-estate agent. Several local architects and a representative of a regional energy-efficiency advocacy group spoke to retain the rules.

Jim Myers, director of building efficiency program for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, said cities that have adopted the efficiency building standards including Phoenix, Salt Lake, Albuquerque, Cheyenne and Denver. He joined other speakers in urging the city council to preserve the standards, noting that the waiver process — which has never been used by a Las Vegas developer — is in place.

But the conversation about the rules isn’t likely to be over with Wednesday’s vote. Nevada’s Attorney General’s Office has already informed the city that the energy-efficiency rules are required by state law, and Jerbic, early the discussion said that a legal challenge to Wednesday’s vote is possible. However, he also said that the city has a right to amend rules to fit its particular situation.