The Thanksgiving weekend was bracketed on both sides with the ongoing discussion about proposed Council policies in response to global warming.
On Monday, November 21st, Council hosted its largest public hearing ever – 188 people signed up to testify about the proposed ordinance to ban fossil fuel infrastructure in new low-rise residential housing. We had large gatherings outside and inside the building advocating for opposite sides; and we have rolled over a continuing hearing to December 12th in order to be able to hear from the remaining 35 names on the list.
There are a couple of important messages for council and for our community in this outpouring of comments. First, the actual ordinance has very limited scope: it would apply only to housing that would be permitted for construction after June 2023. No current resident would be impacted. We have plenty of housing in Eugene that is already fully electric, and there is ample evidence that new heat pumps and electric heat pump water heaters are more economical for the owner or renter. Eliminating the installation of fossil fuel pipeline reduces construction costs and could be one factor in supporting our priority to build more housing people can afford. At the same, the prohibition would constrain NW Natural's growth of new residential customers, which explains their robust, well-funded campaign calling for energy choice.
Second, this is the first step in a longer-term policy direction from council to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and use of fossil fuels in our building stock – both new and existing. Many who oppose the ordinance cite this as the reason for their opposition – they are fearful of the impacts of the subsequent policy options.
This brings me to the work session on Monday, the 28th after the Thanksgiving weekend, in which council got the first briefing from staff about the community engagement process and the “roadmap” to decarbonization. That planning prioritizes outreach to the business community and with an eye toward equity, based on two motions council passed in July. It is clear from the public hearing that we have a lot of work to do to educate the public and to bring residents and business owners on board with our climate recovery goals. The staff has outlined the broad range of public engagement processes that council has directed and they have requested time in the first quarter of 2023 to work to develop a communication and engagement plan that coordinates and aligns as many of these processes as possible. They include our discussion of a public health overlay zone, our response to the state mandated “Climate Friendly and Equitable Communities” planning, our rental protections proposals, and consideration of land use management with respect to urban reserves and the Urban Growth Boundary.
It is my hope that we can be clear about the short term, relatively straightforward ordinance on new housing; and allow plenty of time and opportunity for the long-term community conversations about how we create more climate resiliency in our buildings.
I will add to this that we are not alone. Since April I have participated in the State Resilient Buildings Task Force which is now finalizing its recommendations to the 2023 legislature. This work aims to guide legislative policy decisions that would promote common sense investment and incentives for weatherization, energy efficiency, and electric heat pumps. At the Federal level, I sit on the EPA’s Local Government Advisory Committee where we are also submitting recommendations about how the Greenhouse Gas Reduction funds included in the newly approved Inflation Reduction Act can best serve communities as they strive to create – among other things – more resilient buildings, investing in the same strategies we are supporting for the State. Eugene’s work in this realm aligns with both federal and state directions and we stand to benefit from the millions of dollars that will be available to local governments. This is not a moment for a reflexive “no, it’s too much, too fast.” This is a moment to ask “what do we need to do be ready to benefit.”