Greener & Greener in Suburban Towns

October 11, 2009

Greener & Greener in Suburban Towns

By Mireya Navarro

FOR two years, Valerie Williams had been considering making the five-bedroom home she grew up in more energy efficient - hoping to shrink her $350 monthly utility bill - but more pressing expenses always came first.

Then the town of Babylon came up with an offer she couldn't refuse: if she and her husband, Carlos, paid $250 for an energy audit, the town would finance the recommended upgrades. The couple would repay the town at a monthly rate below the savings on their utility bill. The audit, done this month, found that by insulating walls, basement and attic, at a cost of $6,879, the Williamses could save about $1,300 a year.

"It's an excellent deal," said Mrs. Williams, 42, a New York City correction officer. "With the bills and the mortgage, sometimes it's hard to do this at one time." New York City and other major urban centers have ambitious, high-profile environmental programs. But it turns out that throughout the suburbs, towns like Babylon, on Long Island, are exploring and adopting a wide variety of innovative ways to save energy, protect their residents' health and reduce pollution.

Some of these towns are offering energy retrofits; others furnish free parking to fuel-efficient hybrid cars. Yet others are limiting or banning the use of fertilizers to avoid chemicals leaching into the groundwater, or imposing strict energy efficiency requirements for new homes.

In a bold action, the Town of Islip changed its zoning ordinance last month to allow windmills up to 156 feet high in industrial zones, for warehouses and other businesses that may want to produce their own electricity and sell any excess energy to the local utility. Last November, Islip also allowed wind turbines in residential backyards and on commercial property, but town officials say there have been few takers because of height limitations of 45 and 70 feet, respectively.

"There's a very strong environmental sensibility among suburbanites," said Lawrence C. Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY., and the driver of a Prius (which he can park free in his town, Huntington). "One of the reasons that people move to the suburbs is for the cleaner air and open spaces. They guard this zealously and with their votes."

In Greenwich, Conn., the Board of Selectmen has banned pesticides on all municipal and school playing fields, and now requires that all cleaning products used in government buildings be certified.

Sometimes, the smaller size of these towns gives them an advantage over big cities in promoting these changes. To begin its energy audit program last year, for example, Babylon, which has about 60,000 homes, had its garbage collectors deliver an energy-efficient fluorescent bulb to every household during their rounds.

Buildings are a major target of local environmental action because, through their heating, cooling and other uses of energy, they are among the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, the main gas linked to global warming. Neal Lewis, executive director of the Sustainability Institute at Molloy College on Long Island, said representatives from Suffolk and Nassau Counties and their towns and villages came together five years ago with their eye on building-related pollution. Since then, 10 of 13 towns in the two counties have set new energy efficiency standards in their building codes for new construction, Mr. Lewis said.

Among these towns is Southampton, which decided to tailor its energy conservation to building size, so that homes that use the most energy are required to become the most energy efficient. Southampton is a wealthy resort town with many houses of more than 10,000 square feet; its law, passed last year, creates a tier system that calls for stricter energy-saving measures, like higher levels of insulation and more window glazing, for bigger homes. "The premise is that if you can afford a house that's 10,000 square feet, you can also make sure it's highly energy efficient," Mr. Lewis said. "It's completely changed how houses are built."

Besides its attractiveness as a money saver, the code appeals to residents who realize that the alternative may be more smokestacks on the local horizon.

"People don't want a big power plant out here, so what do we have? We have conservation," said Robert S DeLuca, president of Group for the East End, an environmental group, and a member of the committee that produced the new code.

Builders for the most part have been supportive of these measures, but Michael Watt, executive vice president of the Long Island Builders Institute, said his group has worked closely with legislators to make sure the environmental goals are attainable and affordable. He said green features can make a home more valuable but in the short term add to building costs, so one question to consider is, "Is the consumer willing to pay for that?"

"Sometimes the municipality, in its desire to do good, would mandate changes when incentives tend to work better," Mr. Watt said.

And there is only so much change the towns can impose. Requiring that homes be built smaller would greatly shrink the carbon footprint of buildings, but even environmentalists agree this is not realistic.

"There would be no political support to work on that side of the equation," Mr. DeLuca said.

There are other obstacles to going green. Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, said villages, wary of changing their character, often resist increasing building density even if that means forcing development to go elsewhere and contributing to suburban sprawl. And poor suburbs are less likely than affluent ones to join the movement, she said.

"There are no real resources, and it's unlikely that you'd have the kind of galvanizing leadership in these communities to take on climate issues," Ms. Bystryn said. "Leaders usually advocate for affordable housing and things like that."

But even wealthier areas need financial incentives in order to draw participants like Mrs. Williams. So far more than 200 homes have been audited, with potential savings of close to $1,000 a year each on average.

The town pays for the program, now a pilot, with $2 million from its solid waste reserve fund. New state and federal laws, and millions of dollars in federal stimulus grants, have also helped spur such initiatives.

"This is a program that helps the environment, helps homeowners save money, creates local jobs, reduces our reliance on fossil fuels and it's at no cost to taxpayers," said Steve Bellone, Babylon's town supervisor.

Mr. Levy, of Hofstra, noted that the fragmented government on Long Island, with its many towns and special districts, often means competition for development projects or government grants - and that the quest to go green has created healthier rivalries.

"All the town supervisors want to be known as the leanest and greenest," he said.

Mr. Bellone said he strongly believed that sustainability was a matter of survival.

"Over time, residents are going to demand it, and housing stock and commercial stock that are green are going to be more valuable," he said. "This positions Babylon to be a prosperous community for the long term."