A pedestrian mall in Burlington, Vermont.
Burlington, Vermont, where about 65% of voters this month answered “yes” to a ballot question to allow city officials broad authority to regulate heating sources in homes and businesses. Credit: Ryan Scullin / Creative Commons

A voter-approved charter amendment in Burlington, Vermont, could give city officials broad authority to regulate heating sources in homes and businesses — if it clears a final and significant legal hurdle at the state capital.

About 65% of voters this month answered “yes” to a ballot question proposing to allow the Burlington City Council “to regulate thermal energy systems in residential and commercial buildings, including assessing carbon impact or alternative compliance payments.”

The measure gives power beyond the gas hookup bans for new construction that have been debated and adopted in several other cities, conceivably letting city leaders require changes in existing buildings, though that hasn’t been proposed.

What’s most striking about the Burlington measure is that it may be the first of its kind to come directly from voters, said Alejandra Mejia Cunningham, a building decarbonization advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“That is the most direct evidence we’ve seen for urgent action on emissions from buildings,” Mejia Cunningham said. “That’s really exciting to me.”

Organizations including the Vermont Public Interest Research Group supported the ballot measure, while the local chamber of commerce and the conservative-led Opportunity Vermont opposed it, calling it a “burner ban” that would raise costs for homeowners.

Burlington is among several New England cities seeking a bigger role in regulating fossil fuel use in buildings. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey rejected a bid last summer by the town of Brookline to prohibit oil and gas pipes in new and substantially renovated buildings. Brookline, Arlington and Lexington are now seeking approval from the state legislature for these policies. It comes at a time when several legislatures across the country are trying to revoke local control over clean energy.

Burlington’s ballot measure was the result of a proposal led by the mayor last fall to begin regulating building heat in new construction. Officials brought forward a policy to require new buildings to heat with non-fossil fuel technology or else be assessed a fee. The city’s attorney, however, determined Burlington likely didn’t have the authority under its city charter to assess fees.

Darren Springer, general manager of Burlington Electric Department, said he’s not aware of any proposals currently in the city government that would regulate existing buildings. But, he added, “the charter certainly encompasses buildings as a whole, so there’s potential for future conversations around that.”

City Council Member Jack Hanson plans to have those conversations. He’s been instrumental in leading discussions on building electrification and weatherization in the city, and he believes state approval for the new charter change would allow Burlington to create unique policies.

He predicts it will be easiest to begin by requiring people who are already upgrading their heating systems to invest in an electric one if it’s cost-comparable to fossil fuels. “If we’re serious about this crisis, then we have to require that anyone getting a new system, if it costs the same or less, then they’ve got to make that switch.”

While the election indicated strong local support, the charter change won’t become final until after the state legislature and governor approve it. This is due to a long-standing and somewhat controversial stipulation in the state constitution that grants final say to those powers.

Critics are also alleging that voters didn’t understand the proposal, which was part of a crowded ballot including questions on cannabis retail licenses, “just cause” evictions and ranked-choice voting. 

“I think it’s really important that voters understand what is being said when they’re talking about banning fossil fuels and when they’re talking about carbon impact fees,” said Tiana Smith, senior director of strategy and chief of staff at Vermont Gas Systems. The utility provides heating for nearly all of Burlington.

Smith said she felt the discussion around the ballot measure focused more on oil and propane heating, with less discussion of natural gas. She also thinks it’s possible people were thinking more about new buildings than they were about existing ones. 

City Council Member Ali Dieng is also skeptical. He’s been supportive of other initiatives, including a recently proposed ordinance requiring rental property owners to weatherize apartment buildings. But he doesn’t think voters knew how broad the charter change would be.

And Dieng said now, in the middle of a pandemic, isn’t the appropriate time to seek a charter change. He thinks the city would have done better to start discussing with voters the prospect of a change — and especially what that could mean for residents. As it is, he doesn’t think voters will be supportive if they’re actually asked to switch their fuels or be taxed.

Hanson conceded there could have been some confusion, especially since policy discussion has focused on new construction, though he felt the ballot question clearly encompassed existing buildings. Smith said it will be important, once specific policies are proposed, to see whether voters still support these measures.

A move off natural gas would have major impacts for Vermont Gas Systems, which has its own decarbonization plans. The company aims to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, primarily by increasing the use of renewable natural gas, as well as through efficiency programs like weatherization.

A mix of renewable natural gas and electrification would be more realistic than completely electrifying, Smith said, since electrification can be costly. She acknowledged renewable natural gas is still costly, but added that as the supply increases, the cost will decrease.

Hanson and Burlington Electric officials said large-scale electrification could end up pushing electric rates down, making the economic case for that more feasible.

Chris Burns, Burlington Electric’s director of energy services, said the city has several buildings that are all-electric. Those buildings have been built with high-quality insulation and air sealing, reducing the work the heat pump has to do. 

“Our view has been, do both,” Burns said. “Be really thoughtful on both sides of the equation” — not just cutting fossil fuels but also designing energy-efficient buildings — “and the analysis can show downward rate pressure.”

Mejia Cunningham, at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that once the legislature approves the change, it will still take time for the city to craft the right policy. Ordinances will require public comment, she said, and it’s important for residents to be engaged during that process.

“This is why we think local communities have been a really great place that we’ve seen a lot of these building policies come out of,” she said. People clearly want to address climate change, she said, and they want to live in healthier buildings. The local level is where discussions can happen while still taking other community priorities into account.

For Hanson, while the ballot measure approval feels like a victory, it’s also just the beginning. He’s unsure how the legislature will respond, as well as the governor, who’s been opposed to clean energy initiatives that could raise prices for consumers.

But given the scale of the climate crisis, steps like this should have been taken years ago, Hanson said. This ballot measure could help the city build on its proposed rental weatherization ordinance. By broadening policies beyond rental properties, “now suddenly everyone’s having to make changes that they didn’t necessarily have a plan for,” he said.

“But that’s kind of the point,” he added. “We need everyone to make that plan, and we need everyone to participate in this if we’re going to get our economy off fossil fuels.”

David has written on health, science and the environment for various outlets, including World Wildlife Fund and the Chicago newspaper Windy City Times. He has reported on topics including the city’s opioid epidemic, bird research at the Field Museum, and LGBT youth in foster care, and was a Chicago correspondent for the Energy News Network. Now based in New York, David covers northern New England.