Petaluma considers building code tweaks for greener construction

The city is planning to require builders to add more solar panels and ditch natural gas hookups.|

Petaluma officials are pursuing building codes that would require new housing projects to meet greater energy standards that exceed California requirements, a foundational step toward reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions when it comes to construction.

The city council and planning commission held a joint meeting at City Hall last week to review the options for so-called reach codes that go beyond what the state establishes every three years. Petaluma currently has one reach code pertaining to construction standards, and the how materials are sourced and reused.

The two boards, who together oversee most of the city’s public hearings on new developments, were unanimously in favor of adopting regulations that would require all new single-family homes and low-rise housing three stories or smaller to run entirely on electricity with no natural gas hookups.

For the planning commission in particular, which frequently asks developers for greater energy standards, having a stricter code would give the body more authority when reviewing projects.

“One of our mantras that we say constantly is ‘How is this project going to be green?’” said Commissioner Diana Gomez. “What we’ve found is generally the developers build to the code and no more. So if we can get some robust mandates in a code to make projects more green, that’s wonderful.”

With some individual variations between the two boards, officials were generally supportive of increasing solar capacity to add onto the upcoming state requirement for installing some type of panel in new homes. As a minimum, the state will require energy efficiency increases of approximately 7% starting next year.

The city will also look at a potential ordinance that would mandate the proper wiring is installed in new garages to pave the way for electric vehicle charging stations in every home.

However, to meet the lofty all-electric goals being explored, some areas of Petaluma would need to add more solar arrays, said Petaluma’s Chief Building Official Doug Hughes.

“In some of our neighborhoods now, if we went to an all-electric code, the grid and the systems in place now couldn’t handle it,” he said. “Without additional solar required above and beyond what’s in the code, they would have to put additional solar on it to meet the requirements of the house.”

Rachel Kuykendall, senior program manager for Sonoma Clean Power, said a recent study found that all-electric building codes could reduce construction costs by more than $6,000 when compared to the installation costs for natural gas lines.

As for homeowners, cost savings could be as large as 200% or add about $200 more per year depending on the size of the accompanying solar system, Kuykendall said.

Aside from power changes, officials viewed a “laundry to landscape” provision as an easy target. It would edit the plumbing code to provide a valve in new homes to recycle water from laundry machines.

Councilwoman D’Lynda Fischer suggested going even further, asking city staff to explore options for even greater reuse practices like capturing rainwater so the amount reaching the ground can be reduced.

“I’d rather have it go into my landscape,” she said. “If we can look at a way to use the rainwater that is coming down, I think it’s a great resource we shouldn’t be wasting and should be using.”

Even though reach codes could lay a foundation for a more environmentally-sustainable future, several officials pointed out that they fall short in several areas.

Current building code revisions are limited solely to residential projects, and would leave out commercial developments that are typically larger and consume more energy.

Since adopting reach codes require a visible cost benefit, studies are lagging on commercial developments, which are targeting 2030 for state-mandated reductions as opposed to 2020 for residential, Kuykendall said.

For now, the quickest option is to establish financial incentives for developers.

“Although I like that this is for single-family developments and low-rise developments, we often are approached by commercial developments,” Commissioner Heidi Bauer said. “Right now as planning commissioners we have to beg more and plead to get them to put solar on top. I’d like to see what options we have to do more than begging.”

Reach codes would also leave out everything in the current building and housing stock.

Similar to commercial projects, Kuykendall said the city could establish incentives for whenever there’s renovation work done, or residential add-ons like accessory dwelling units are pursued.

Before anything gets done, though, Councilman Mike Healy called for further economic review to examine how each reach code would impact a developer’s bottom line.

“I’d like to be as aggressive as we can be on (greenhouse gas) reductions, but mindful of what the costs are,” he said.

The state is bringing forward its latest code revisions for adoption this fall, and Petaluma officials are optimistic they can dovetail their efforts so all of the latest changes are in place Jan. 1.

Implementing a reach code requires demonstrating a proven cost benefit, two public meetings and an approval by the California Energy Commission.

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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