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Mountain News: Assessing energy impacts of mansions

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ASPEN, Colo.—In 2000, Aspen and Pitkin County effectively adopted the first carbon tax in the country. The renewable energy mitigation program, or REMP, took aim at larger houses and exterior energy use, such as for heated driveways.

If you want to build a larger home with an outdoor swimming pool and heated pavers, the regulations said, you will have to either mitigate the increased energy by securing your own renewable energy resources or pay a fee.

Most homeowners, at least at first, chose just to pay the REMP fee, which was then distributed for various purposes, such as energy efficiency improvements in local homes and buildings.

But is it enough? And, to go back to square one, is this really good public policy to begin with?

Pitkin County's elected officials are looking at substantial increases in fees for assessed homes larger than 5,750 square feet. The Aspen Times reported that instead of the current US$1 per additional square foot, the proposal from county staff members would push the price to US$45 a square foot for those homes between 5,750 and 8,250 sq/ft.

As home sizes increase, the proportionate fee would also increase. For example, the builder of a 6,500-sq/ft house now exacts a fee of US$750 unless there's mitigating renewable energy. The proposed increase would push the fee to US$33,750.

Larger houses would pay a proportionately larger fee. Somebody building a 9,000-sq/ft house now pays US$6,250. If the fee increase is adopted, the builder would pay US$195,000.

Outrageous? The Aspen Times quoted several commissioners who said that the community's wealthy second buyers won't blink. "It's a drop in the bucket," said Commissioner George Newman. "Frankly, I think the elephant in the room is an elephant."

Also to be considered is whether to assess additional charges for snowmelt and other exterior energy use in the cold climate. Brian Pawl, the chief building official, said that one in five new house permits requests a pool. The staff has received at least one request recently for an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Eagle County, Crested Butte, and Telluride all have adopted similar programs.

Energy use in homes and businesses remains a daunting challenge. Santa Fe-based architect Ed Mazria spoke in May at a conference in Carbondale, Colo. There, he reported that 45 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to buildings, whether electricity consumed in the buildings for lighting and air conditioning and computers, or to heat the houses. His accounting includes industrial buildings as well as homes and businesses.

Mazria heads an effort called Architecture 2020 that seeks to dramatically change energy use in buildings in North America and China.

In metropolitan Denver, Chuck Kutscher looks at the charges levied against big houses with skepticism. He's now retired from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory after spending 40 years trying to find ways to decarbonize our energy. But he worries that policies viewed as punishing lifestyles send the wrong message.

"I'd rather not go after people's lifestyles," said Kutscher. Instead, he argued for the end of subsidies to fossil fuels or, more broadly, a carbon tax applied to everyone, not just the wealthy.

"You can tell people how to put in attic insulation, but you can't really tell people you need to live in a 1,000-square-foot house with three other people, because that gets into lifestyle."

Kutscher, a co-author on a college textbook called Principles of Sustainable Energy Systems, agreed on the imperative to take action. "The unsustainability of fossil fuels makes an energy transition necessary. Climate change makes it urgent," said the book's preface.

But singling out owners of larger homes would not be his first choice, said Kutscher. "It almost seems like a cultural war. We should focus on the root of the problem, which is carbon dioxide."

Stop should mean stop

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo.—Idaho in 1982 adopted a law that allows bicycle riders to treat a stop sign as a yield sign. Red lights do indeed mean stop. Colorado adopted a law this year that gives local jurisdictions similar latitude, if they so choose.

In Crested Butte, the police chief warns of bad things to come if stop no longer means stop.

"I am not comfortable giving my blessings to this," Mike Reily told the town council at a recent meeting covered by the Crested Butte News. "Will people blow through stop signs without due regard? It's like giving all the kids in town a pair of sharp, pointy scissors. Most of them will not hurt themselves, but a few will."

Kent Cowherd, a member of the council, also was leery. "As a former firefighter, I have seen accidents at intersections. If it contributes to the loss of one life, it would be horrible," he said.

No action was taken.

Again a discussion about the noisy highway

VAIL, Colo.—Interstate 70 will be put underground through several kilometres of Denver in the next several years. Might Vail get a similar cut-and-cover deal?

The executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation offered to meet with the Vail Town Council this week. Michael Lewis, the director of C-DOT since last December, has some experience with highway tunnelling. In Boston, he directed the Central Artery Tunnel project, more commonly known as The Big Dig.

For Vail, the highway has long been a mixed blessing. It makes for easy transportation. Unlike Aspen, there's no maddening congestion. But there is pollution, most notably noise. One long-term resident said last year she no longer ever ventures out onto her front porch, which overlooks the valley. It's just too loud, she said.

In 2004, the din and roar spurred a study of five alternatives.

The idea of a cut-and-cover of I-70 for 13 kilometres through Vail was discarded soon because of the cost, in the range of US$2.8 billion to US$3.5 billion. The idea was that the highway would be put underground then covered, with the land above used for limited residential and commercial real estate development but also for open space, a city street and wildlife passages.

The other four options all envisioned tunnels under Vail Mountain. That would be the route from Vail Pass and would bypass Vail. The study found those options pricey, too, running into the billions. C-DOT has total revenue this year of US$1.6 billion.

Vail town officials have taken a keen interest in the last year in understanding the great changes in transportation now beginning. This meeting, however, was initiated by the state, said Suzanne Silverthorne, the town spokeswoman.

Some reject this New Code of the West

WHITEFISH, Mont.—The ski town of Whitefish does not want to extend a welcoming hand to those attending a conference in mid-October. The New Code of the West conference has invited Ammon Bundy to speak.

The name Bundy in the West has become synonymous with those who think the federal government should have no role in public lands, that the lands should be in private hands. Clive Bundy, Ammon's father, refused to pay the Bureau of Land Management for grazing his cattle on public lands in Nevada. He argued that the federal government had no right to own vast acres of lands. His bill for grazing rights ran to more than US$1 million.

In 2016, his son Ammon and a second son, along with other armed protestors, seized control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.

The Whitefish Pilot reported pushback from some local residents, including state legislator Bob Brown. "By Inviting Ammon Bundy, organizers and participants of this event are attempting to normalize the seizure of public lands and to legitimize threats against federal and local law enforcement," he said.

Another speaking out against the event was Richard Hildner, a member of the city council. "Two years ago, a group of neo-Nazis and white supremacists wanted to hold a rally in Whitefish, and the people of Whitefish stood together against that divisiveness," he said. "The New Code of the West event brings with it a similar divisiveness that we rejected two years ago, and we reject now."

Vail Resorts recruit skiers from Panama

VAIL, Colo.—Lots of Brazilians, English and Aussies are in Vail. And now more Panamanians, too?

The Vail Daily reported that Vail Resorts has an agent working on behalf of the company to recruit his former fellow Panamanians.

It's a country of six million people with relative affluence because of the goods moving through the Panama Canal. The currency, the balboa, links to the U.S. dollar, and many Panamanian students have attended U.S. colleges, getting acquainted with winter sports.

A very hot, dry year but still enough water to make snow

ASPEN, Colo.—Rains forecast for next week may change outlooks, but for now it's been hot and dry in the Colorado Rockies for about as long as anybody can remember. Last winter was droughty and summer was worse, hot and dry.

In Aspen, restrictions were imposed in August on outdoor watering. Still, city water officials say there will be enough water to make snow.

"There are a lot of reasons why snowmaking is a water use that can be done even during this dry period," Margaret Medellin, the city's portfolio utilities manger, told the Aspen Daily News.

Snowmaking happens mostly during November and December, when there's minimal outdoor watering and relatively few visitors. Outdoor uses consume as much as 86 per cent of the city's water during summer months. Snowmaking, if done during a narrower window, consumes about eight per cent annually.

Medellin said she believed that snowmaking can be coordinated to avoid dipping below minimum streamflows designated for maintaining health of local creeks.

Wildfire continues to be threat

KREMMLING, Colo.—If it's now autumn, the wildfires continue in Wyoming, Colorado and elsewhere.

One of the smaller fires, at least by 21st century standards, is in the Gore Range, a few kilometres away from where the Colorado River slices its way out of Middle Park. The Silver Creek fire is notable less by its size than the background story.

It has been argued that if only loggers had been allowed to get in and cut trees, there would not be all these blazes. There may be some truth to that, but in that particular area loggers had their way for most of the 20th century.

Kremmling, the nearest town, was a logging town, crews working for Edwards Hines Lumber and then Louisiana-Pacific were given easy access to local forests. If trees were not cut, it was likely because the terrain was too steep. A lot of the thin, spindly, lodgepole pine forests were cut extensively.

And still there is this fire.

Aspen also got a good scare this summer. It happened just before the Fourth of July, when the Lake Christine Fire got started in the pinyon-and-juniper forests about 32 kilometres down-valley from Aspen. Three homes were burned and 12,500 acres were blackened. By standards of the California fires and many others in Colorado, this wasn't all that big a blaze.

But it could have been much worse.

Aspen, like many of the somewhat higher-elevation resorts in Colorado, had long considered fire a distant threat. In theory, such forests burn—but not very often.

Now, the threat is not nearly as remote.

John Bennett, a former Aspen mayor, has been organizing several forums this week about the prospect of fire.

"It really woke us up, and the wildfire danger is changing," Bennett told the Aspen Daily News.

If the fires do happen, they are now bigger and hotter for a variety of reasons.

Summit County also once thought itself impervious to forest fires. That notion was dashed some years ago. It got a good scare last year, despite strong efforts aimed at insulating Breckenridge and other communities. Another fire arrived this year during the hot, searing days of June. This time, the preventative work likely saved many homes.

But it's not yet over. County officials adopted restrictions recently.

"As is typical this time of year, the vegetation in Summit County is getting very dry, and we need to put prevention measures in place to reduce the risk of wildfire," Summit County Commissioner Dan Gibbs said. "Looking ahead, there's a lot of sunshine in the forecast, so we don't expect that conditions will improve in the near future."

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