by Steve Mistler, staff writer
AUGUSTA — The Legislature voted Tuesday to enact a bill that would allow certain-sized towns to decide whether to follow the state law that mandates minimum energy efficiency and building standards for construction projects.
The House voted 76-71 and the Senate voted 21-12 to increase the population threshold for municipalities that can choose not to participate in the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Codes, a 2008 law enacted to promote energy efficiency and consistent construction standards for contractors.
LD 1416 would allow towns with fewer than 4,000 residents to withdraw from the program.
Current law requires all towns with more than 2,000 people to enforce the code. Towns below that threshold don’t have to enforce the code; however, the standards still exist for contractors.
Opponents of LD 1416 say the bill would not only allow towns with fewer than 4,000 to opt out, it would strip the existing standard.
Proponents say current law is too strict and costly and cannot be effectively enforced. They say it’s also cost-prohibitive for poorer families who choose to do their own construction.
Supporters of the current law say it puts Maine on the path toward energy efficiency and creates a consistent standard among contractors.
The issue appears to have divided the construction industry.
Some firms argued that the law increased project costs and stifled new development.
However, the Maine Contractors & Builders Alliance, representing 175 builders in the mid-coast region, said the Maine Uniform Building and Energy Codes leveled the playing field among contractors by making it so some builders couldn’t undercut job bids by using substandard materials such as thinner framing boards or cheaper insulation.
During the bill’s public hearing, the Maine Municipal Association testified that it did not want the uniform building code to apply to some towns and not others.
Environmental groups also opposed the bill. They argued that the energy savings reached through current standards paid for the upfront costs.
The House voted mostly along party lines, with Republicans supporting the change.
Democrats argued that current law already allows 324 of Maine’s 496 towns to not enforce uniform building code standards. LD 1416, they argued, would not only remove the enforcement provision for more than 400 towns but would make optional for those same municipalities to adopt the standard as a guideline for construction.
Gov. Paul LePage supports the change. The governor initially included the proposal in his amendment to LD 1, the regulatory reform law signed by LePage on Monday.
In April, a coalition of architects and builders representing 1,500 businesses sent a letter to LePage urging the governor not to change the building code law.
The letter noted that more than 40 states have a uniform building code requirement and that the Maine standards “will increase the quality of residential and commercial buildings” as the construction industry rebounds from the recession.
The coalition also argued that the building code’s weatherization standards saved money by reducing Mainers’s reliance on federal low-income heating programs.