Saturday, July 20, 2024

An Eversource substation at 377 Putnam Ave., Cambridgeport, under construction in June 2020. (Photo: Marc Levy)

An exemption for condominium owners from a law trying to lower greenhouse gases entangled Cambridge city councillors in a long discussion of protocol on Monday – but did not stop a recommendation to city staff for a 27-year condominium pass.

Enacted in 2014, Beudo’s goal is to lower emissions from large commercial, institutional and multifamily buildings, which produce a large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions from building energy in Cambridge. Most emissions come from non-residential buildings. The name is shorthand for the Building Energy Usage Disclosure Ordinance.

At an ordinance meeting last April, five out of nine councillors were present to vote to fast-track the Beudo ordinance to 2035 from 2050, and on Monday they formally instructed the Community Development Department to change all language to reflect the new, ambitious goal.

Condo owners caught up in the change said they’d felt blindsided by the extreme financial burdens threatened, especially for residents of older buildings.

Letters from several condo owners said the city left condo owners out of the conversation for 40 meetings over two years. “City planners have drawn up a one-size-fits all approach to emission reductions that ignores legitimate issues that will make it financially and practically difficult to impossible for many condominium buildings to comply,” said the copy-and-paste public comment submitted by seven condo owners.

“There’s a number of condo owners that are really undone with what they think is going to happen,” councillor E. Denise Simmons said, “and I don’t think we’ve done our best at reaching out and making sure people are kept up to date with what we’re doing.”

An amendment to specify “non-residential buildings” in the 2035 deadline and omit condo owners was proposed by councillor Quinton Zondervan, who said the changes were among those already in the works at the Community Development Department. “Importantly, part of the evolution of the conversation is that the 2035 deadline is only intended to apply to non-residential buildings, not to the residential buildings, which would remain on the 2050 timeline,” he said at the meeting.

Eversource electrification goals

The inclusion of Eversource at the series of meetings is also recent. The city’s electricity provider has said it will take many years to site and build the substations needed to provide all the power called for by the law, which encourages property owners to stop using fossil fuels. “I wish we were having these discussions about infrastructure 20 years ago. Maybe we’d have some of these substations built,” councillor Marc McGovern said. Instead, the city seemed to be setting an ambitious goal that “you can’t achieve … but you’re going to say you’re going to achieve it anyway.”

Goals are best achieved by setting them, councillor Dennis Carlone said, and Zondervan noted that property owners could comply with Beudo through means such as carbon credits. “The 2035 deadline does not mean that Eversource needs to fully electrify the City of Cambridge by 2035,”  Zondervan said. “Under the ordinance, you can be net zero without being fully electrified.”

Muddled procedure

City councillor Quinton Zondervan reacts to being interrupted during a procedural debate at Monday’s meeting of the Cambridge City Council. (Image: livestream screen capture)

There was more than a half-hour of muddled procedure and some heated words as councillors accepted minutes from a hearing held more than 10 months ago that was being overtaken by current events. It was another in a recent series of procedural pile-ons in which councillors debated the order of actions and even what they were doing. Like other recent debates, it dragged in the city clerk and city solicitor to offer opinions on how to proceed. At one point Zondervan rested his head in his hands as he was interrupted while offering an explanation, and other officials seemed equally aware of the morass they were in. Simmons asked a question with the ironic comment it was “just so we can clearly muddy the water”; Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui made an equally arch remark about 20 minutes in about taking a vote “and based on where the vote goes, we can have more fun after that.”

Vice mayor Alanna Mallon said at the meeting that there have been communication issues among council members regarding Beudo – including the meeting at which the net-zero goal was moved to 2035 from 2050. “There was four of us not at an Ordinance Committee meeting. I doubt I would have voted to change that deadline to 2035, because I would have tried to amend the order to simply seek guidance from CDD and Eversource,” Mallon said.

She recommended not passing Zondervan’s amendment to omit condo owners and preferred to refer to the Ordinance Committee.

“Do I think that condo owners are being pretty unfairly treated with the proposed date that was, up until five minutes ago, on the table? Yeah,” Mallon said. “We need to refer to the Ordinance Committee and really say we are committed to working on whatever amendments need to be coming forward.”

Any additional amendments to Beudo will continue at the next ordinance meeting – originally scheduled for March 1 but now to be rescheduled for sometime in mid-March.