Though it has been in the works for years, a plan to require more construction-site recycling and reuse of materials hit a small road bump at the Planning Commission last week. Commissioners voted unanimously to send the proposed code amendments back to their Codes and Ordinances Committee, where they hope to get more input on the changes.
Ross Rathgeber told the commission that his family has been in the demolition business in Austin for the past 50 years. He was speaking against the proposed changes as they applied to demolitions and explained that the end goal of recycling 95 percent of materials from demolitions is not realistic.
“If you really want to kill redevelopment in Austin, you’ll implement this ordinance,” said Rathgeber, who estimated it would increase the cost of demolition by a factor of “four or five.”
Woody Raine, who is a zero-waste planner in the Austin Resource Recovery Department, explained that City Council initiated the code amendment in December 2014 but the city has been working on the ordinance for about five years.
Raine told the commission that debris from construction currently makes up 20 percent of what is going to landfills “at the very least.”
Beginning in 2016, the code amendment will apply to building projects over 5,000 square feet and all commercial demolitions. It will not apply to residential demolitions until 2020. In 2020, the ordinance will also apply to building projects over 1,000 square feet.
Initially, the city will require 50 percent diversion from landfills. That will increase to 75 percent in 2020 and 95 percent in 2030. Not reporting or meeting the new diversion requirements will be a Class C misdemeanor, penalized with a fine of up to $500 unless a waiver is obtained from the city.
Raine said that diversion costs about $20 per ton, which adds between 5 and 18 cents per square foot when building a new multifamily structure. Though he didn’t discuss the impact to single-family homes, he said that they would require an economic impact statement for household affordability before the 2020 and 2030 implementation of the new ordinance.
Rathgeber said the city already encouraged demolition recycling through its green builder program, which incentivizes diversion away from landfills. That ordinance, he said, was a carrot that rewards recycling. The new ordinance, in contrast, “is a big stick.” He explained that the average pier-and-beam house weighs 55 pounds per square foot, and a requirement to recycle 52.5 pounds of that material “cannot be done.”
“The impact on affordability is incredible,” said Rathgeber. “There’s so many regulations in this city now. We talk about the mantra of affordability – it just keeps piling on. … This room ought to be packed with builders and developers coming to tell you how bad this is. I don’t know why it’s not. This is a big deal. I don’t know why people don’t care.”
As for the percentages that Rathgeber found unrealistic, Raine said those percentages have been implemented in places like Florida, California, North Carolina and Illinois.
“Those are not numbers that are pulled out of the air,” said Raine.
When asked by Chair Stephen Oliver about how the ordinance might be approached better, Rathgeber suggested that a pilot program would allow the city to gather more accurate cost data and give time to speak to builders and contractors.
The city has been speaking with stakeholders since 2010, according to Raine. However, Raine agreed with the notion of a pilot program, saying it was “a very good idea.”
Update: Following publication of this article, Raine clarified that years of experience with the Austin Energy Green Building program has effectively served as a pilot program for the city.
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