Those who build large houses in Vermont could face hefty state fees if some lawmakers succeed in their efforts.
Under the Senate version of the proposed law, those who put up new houses larger than 4,000 square feet would be charged unless their buildings were energy efficient.
A similar bill likely to be introduced soon in the House is even tougher. Fees assessed under it on such large houses will go directly to a fund promoting renewable energy production in the state.
Meanwhile, a Vermont Housing Finance Agency report completed Monday may turn conventional wisdom about the relationship between affordable housing and the cost of schools on its head. According to that analysis, there is no direct correlation between increasing housing in a municipality and more students in its school system.
Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, said he will introduce his House bill, which would impose a $1,000 per-square-foot surcharge on the construction of houses over 4,000 square feet.
“It’s meant to make people think about what they are doing,” said Klein, who added that to some extent all Vermonters underwrite the cost of energy and other impacts of large new homes. “When they build these homes, everybody in Vermont has to pay for it,” he said.
The money would go into the state’s clean energy fund, Klein added.
He will also propose that owners of those large homes are billed for power at the time and cost they use it, he added. For instance, homeowners who were charged in that way would pay more for using power at peak times when it is more expensive.
Sen. Virginia Lyons, D-Chittenden and chairwoman of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said the version of the measure proposed in the Senate, takes a slightly different approach. The bill is sponsored by Lyons and Sen. Clair Ayer and Sen. Harold Giard, Democrats of Addison County.
Under that bill, known as S.10, those who build large houses would have to pay a fee equal to 1 percent of the cost of the house, unless their homes meet the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards for “green” or energy efficient buildings.
“The concept is to put in place incentives for building well insulated buildings for homes and businesses,” Lyons said. “This kind of policy is the kind of policy I think we will be talking about over the next couple of years.”
Both bills, if made into law, would regulate the connection to the energy grid each new home needs, unless it relies entirely on its own power sources, such as wind or solar power.
“It’s just ridiculous. It’s just awful,” Joe Sinagra of the Homebuilders and Remodelers Association of Northern Vermont said of Klein’s proposal. “We have a housing crisis and you are adding an additional cost on housing.”
Many of the people building those large houses – the average Vermont house is about 2,800 square feet – are second-home owners who spend most of the year in other states. They contribute to property taxes and other revenue in Vermont, but not school expenses, Sinagra said. And they are paying a higher tax rate already, he said.
“These are just the people we need,” he said.
But Klein said other places that have imposed similar fees on large home construction – for instance Aspen, Colo. – have not seen a drop in second-home owners.
“In Aspen that was not the result. What people did was build smaller, more efficient homes and they probably built more of them,” he said.
Jerry Howard, the executive vice president and chief executive officer of the National Association of Homebuilders, said that while he understands why Vermont has set strict environmental and land use standards for development and construction, it comes at a price.
“When you make those land preservation decisions many times it drives the price of housing up,” said Howard, who will speak tonight in Burlington as the Homebuilders and Remodelers Association of Northern Vermont marks its 50th anniversary. The meeting is not open to the public.
Howard called decisions to enforce 10-acre zoning “legitimate public policy” decisions.
But, he added, “that puts a house out of reach for a lot of young people”.
Howard, who grew up in the state and went to the University of Vermont, still owns a house in South Hero, he added.
Nationally, the construction of new houses will likely rebound, after an inevitable “correction” in the market in recent years, Howard said. Vermont will probably follow those national trends, although it may take somewhat longer than the rest of the country to do so, he said.
“Like the rest of the rest of the country I think Vermont will come out, it might be a little slower,” Howard said.
It is unlikely that the country will soon reach the level of building it was at several years ago when 2.1 million homes a year were being built, but it may soon reach 1.8 million a year again, Howard said.
Meanwhile, the VHFA hampered the argument that constructing homes in Vermont will bring with it more children and require higher taxes to educate them, said John Fairbanks, public affairs manager of the agency.
“We have heard this for years, that if you build this housing kids are going to come into the schools and our taxes are going to go up,” Fairbanks said. “We wanted to test that presumption and see if it was accurate or not.”
The report, based on U.S. Census Bureau data and other statistics, concludes that it is not.
“New housing is highly unlikely to quickly trigger a jump in school enrollment for most Vermont communalities,” according to the report.
For instance, although South Burlington and Essex had increases in housing stocks of 12 percent to 14 percent, they saw increases in elementary school enrollment of only 2 percent to 4 percent.
The demographics of the state’s population probably have a much bigger impact on school enrollment than affordable housing alone, Fairbanks said.
“People are having fewer children, the average household size is dropping,” he said.
The report may also hold lessons for those trying to reverse demographic changes in the state. As Vermont’s population becomes older on average and public school enrollment declines some people, including Gov. James Douglas, are trying to figure out how to keep more young Vermonters in the state.
Housing alone will not do it, according to the report’s findings, Fairbanks said.
“That, in and of itself, is probably not going to make a big enough difference to kids who finish college here and then want to leave,” he said. “Having affordable housing helps, but it is not the silver bullet.”
Things like jobs and entertainment that young Vermonters want will be needed as well as housing to undo that demographic shift, he said.
Sinagra said the analysis in the VHFA report is “right on.” A generation ago, there were fewer divorces and fewer single and young people owning houses. That means more houses do not necessarily mean more children in schools, he said.
By Louis Porter
Vermont Press Bureau
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