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New green building codes stall rebuilding efforts after Colorado wildfire

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Families in Colorado are still looking to rebuild their lives after the Marshall Fire incinerated parts of Boulder County at the end of December. Over 500 homes in the city of Louisville were destroyed. Those looking to rebuild face a new set of green building codes, and to some, they're an expensive obstacle. Sam Brasch of Colorado Public Radio reports.

SUE LOO: Between these two trees is what was our house.

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: It's a frigid morning when Sue Loo and her husband take me to see what's left of their two-story Louisville home. It's not much.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Pile of rubble there used to be a furnace. That's an exercise machine. That's...

LOO: Oh, yeah, that is. It's 30 years of love and happy times - just all in ashes.

BRASCH: December's Marshall Fire nearly leveled this entire suburban neighborhood, where homes often sell for more than $700,000 apiece. Families are now adding up if their insurance policy will cover the cost to rebuild. Loo worries inflation won't be the only thing pushing up the price. Last fall, she watched Louisville City Council pass some of the state's most aggressive green building codes.

LOO: No one - you know, no one - thought that there were going to be 550 homes in Louisville on the ground.

BRASCH: All those fire victims are now subject to so-called net-zero rules. That means each home needs to cover its own energy needs with rooftop solar or some other renewable energy resource. They also need plugs ready for electric cars and heating systems. The amount Louisville estimates that'll add to the average cost to rebuild a home? At least $20,000.

LOO: This is politics on the backs of people who lost everything. I just can't understand that (crying).

BRASCH: Loo called on other fire victims to ask for a break from the new codes, and many testified at a recent City Council meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Normally, I would be a strong advocate for the climate. However, being on the other side of actually being a fire victim, my perspectives have changed dramatically.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I'm asking you for common decency to your fellow citizens to relieve us from the net-zero 2021 building codes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And put people ahead of your political expectations.

BRASCH: Not all fire victims want to suspend the codes. Some see it as a unique chance to build a model low-emissions community. In the middle of the debate is Louisville Mayor Ashley Stolzmann. She's a climate hawk who pushed for the codes in the first place. And she says the fire, which ignited amid a record drought in a warm winter, proves climate change is an immediate public health threat.

ASHLEY STOLZMANN: If there were community members coming in and saying, you know, if we could use lead pipes again, we sure could save a lot of money, I also wouldn't think we should put lead pipes in houses. I would figure out a way to make sure people had safe, clean drinking water.

BRASCH: That said, Stolzmann doesn't think fire victims should carry the financial burden.

STOLZMANN: If we can put together a plan that covers the cost of doing these upgrades, that seems like a very positive outcome.

BRASCH: There's no estimate of how much the new codes could add to Louisville's total recovery. Insurance policies will cover the gap in some cases, but Colorado's governor and its largest power company say they're ready to help.

STOLZMANN: And I'm confident we'll come up with something that will help people rebuild.

BRASCH: But Sue Loo, the resident who lost her home, she's not convinced.

LOO: It's sort of like, you know, the - oh, what is it? The Tom Cruise movie, you know? If the money's there, show me the money - because I'm not seeing it.

BRASCH: And if the codes stay in place, she worries that'll mean more debt for fire victims and longer stays in someone else's basement.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Brasch in Louisville, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOVA EXPLORA'S "MOUNT SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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