The Marshall Fire destroyed nearly 1,100 homes in southern Boulder County on Dec. 30, 2021. Credit: Anthony Albidrez

In a marathon public comment session at Tuesday’s city council meeting, dozens of Louisville residents weighed in on the debate over which building codes Marshall Fire victims must follow when they rebuild their destroyed homes. After listening to community members, the city council voted to draft an ordinance allowing Marshall Fire victims who are rebuilding their homes to follow the 2018 code instead of the more recent 2021 code. The vote on the ordinance itself will be decided in a future meeting.

The city adopted new requirements in October, following the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code, which are expected to save about 9% in energy compared to the 2018 iteration. The neighboring town of Superior adopted a similar exemption on Monday.

The majority of speakers — many of whom lost their homes in the Dec. 30 disaster — were in favor of allowing residents to rebuild to the 2018 codes instead of the 2021 update. Others emphasized the potential climate change impact, which includes less energy efficiency and fewer actions toward debarbonization, such as readiness for solar panels.

Several Marshall Fire victims said the biggest source of stress in rebuilding their home was uncertainty about what the future holds.

A common point of confusion was how much the additional cost of meeting the 2021 code will be.

The Louisville City Council staff presented on how they arrived at their estimate of an additional $20,000 per home. Some councilmembers said they believed the incentives and rebates they had secured, including a $7,500 incentive from Xcel for fire victims, would be enough to cover those costs.

However, many residents said that they believe the costs will be far higher. Some pointed to quotes they had received from local builders, along with a recent letter from the The Home Builders Association of Metro Denver. The letter estimates the cost of rebuilding to the 2021 code to be an additional $35 per square foot; the additional cost for rebuilding a 2,200 square foot house, according to the letter, would be over $75,000. 

In a letter to the towns of Louisville and Superior in January, Gov. Jared Polis promised “the fullest support of the State of Colorado in ensuring your communities serve as a model for sustainable recovery to reduce utility bills, prevent future fires, and build back at record speed.” Polis also pledged to work with the state legislature on a bill to fund a sustainable recovery from the Marshall Fire. These promises remain more vow than concrete plan.

‘What about the next fire?’

Some public commenters, including a few fire victims, spoke against the exemption, arguing that the climate and environmental cost of following only the 2018 code would be too great. In addition to being more energy efficient, Louisville’s 2021 code also includes infrastructure for charging electric vehicles and a requirement to build “either with all electric systems and appliances or with the ability to easily convert from natural gas to electric systems and appliances.” Houses that eschew natural gas and install completely electric appliances would reduce carbon emissions even more.

Susan Nedell, who lost her house in the Marshall Fire, said she was “heartbroken” to hear so many of her neighbors support the exemption. She said that, even though her retirement plans may change as a result of rebuilding costs, building to the 2021 code was still worth it to her. “It is so important to me that we are trying as hard as we can” to build resilient houses and conserve energy.

Nearly every resident who spoke in favor of the exemption said they also cared about the environment. They said meeting the 2021 code was a matter of cost, not their personal beliefs. March Hughes, who lost his home in the Marshall Fire, said he didn’t appreciate how some residents have turned the rebuilding process into a debate over sustainability. 

Residential buildings are responsible for 22% of total U.S. energy consumption and are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. Increasing their energy efficiency and electrifying appliances and heating are climate solutions. Louisville’s 2021 code makes progress on these goals by requiring solar readiness and the capacity for all electric appliances.

Christian Dino, who also lost his home in the fire, urged councilmembers to consider residents who may not be able to afford to meet the 2021 code, even with the offered incentives.

“If we have one neighbor who can’t afford” to rebuild up to the new code, “then the cost is too high,” he said.

Following public comment, the council debated the proposed exemption. Councilmembers Deb Fahey and Maxine Most both opposed the exemption. Fahey, who lost her home in the Marshall Fire, said she believes the incentives and rebates will cover the cost of the 2021 code. She also expressed worry about setting a precedent for future natural disasters. “What about the next fire?” she said.

Most said that she was “very uncomfortable” setting different standards for fire victims. She cited other residents who lost homes due to fire or had other significant damage from forces beyond their control. These people would not be exempt from the 2021 building codes, she said, and would have to bear the costs of compliance without any of the incentives and financial support available to fire victims.

Councilmember Chris Leh said he was moved by resident Brandon Garcia’s comment that asked councilmembers to trust that Marshall Fire victims will build back as green as possible even in the absence of a government code. Garcia supported the waiver, arguing that fire victims also want to be sustainable but are running into financial obstacles. Leh said that he would trust them. “We want you back,” he said to those who lost their homes.

Ultimately, councilmembers Dennis Maloney, Caleb Dickinson, and Kyle Brown joined Leh in supporting an ordinance to grant the code exemption to fire victims — enough for a slim majority among the seven-person council. The council directed its staff to draft the ordinance, which will be voted on during a future meeting.

Clarification: This article has been updated to add more detail to comments from councilmember Maxine Most regarding different standards of code compliance for fire victims.