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  • Dylan Anderson

Steamboat Council lacks support for recommendation to ban fossil fuel-powered snowmelt

Routt County Commissioners have signaled they support a ban in updated building energy codes.

Steamboat Springs City Council indicated a lack of support for a ban on fossil fuel-powered snowmelt systems on Tuesday, differing from the Routt County Commissioners who have indicated they favor a ban in updated building codes.

The recommendation from the Routt County Building Department (which also serves as the Steamboat Springs Building Department) would largely ban snowmelt systems on residential and commercial properties unless 100% powered by renewable sources, an exception that would be nearly impossible to meet currently and would likely only be available to the very wealthy.

In reviewing the building department's recommendation on Tuesday, a narrow majority of council indicated they did not support what would effectively be a ban on these systems in either residential or commercial settings. Council members Michael Buccino, Joella West, Heather Sloop and Robin Crossan all indicated discomfort with a ban, which Gail Garey, Dakotah McGinlay and Ed Briones expressed support for the recommendation as is.

“This will all be easy for us to say yes to, but right now we’re setting up a whole variety of situations where people can’t comply or where it’s economically infeasible,” West said. “I think we’re too far ahead of the game.”

Buildings are the biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses in Routt County, according to a 2018 study that helped spur the creation of the Routt County Climate Action Plan. Adopting building codes that curb outdoor greenhouse gas emissions is one of the action items identified in the plan.

Steamboat Council has delt with snowmelt several times in recent months, first opting for a gas system for the new fire station before reversing that decision in favor of an all-electric system. Council also approved gas-powered snowmelt systems as part of a redesigned Ski Time Square, a decision that went against the adopted climate action plan.

Building codes are updated every three years and adopted by each municipality and the county, the latter of which only has jurisdiction over buildings in unincorporated parts of Routt County. While it is ideal to have the codes sync up across jurisdictions, each local government can pick and choose what to include in their respective building code.

In their own review of the recommendations, County Commissioners expressed a desire to go further and ban snowmelt systems altogether, as powering them with renewable sources is only available to a wealthy few. Other municipalities have indicated support for the building department recommendation, though snowmelt systems in Hayden, Oak Creek and Yampa are not common.

While the entire code is being updated, the big focus for this round of amendments is the energy code, which puts a strong focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions that stem from outdoor heat, like snowmelt, outdoor gas fireplaces and other heating elements. This is important, the recommendation says, because as building codes work to make structures more efficient on the inside, that energy use is being shifted to outside.

“We feel we’ve tightened up the insides of these buildings quite a bit,” said Todd Carr, Routt County’s Building Official, who has been leading outreach with local contractors for months. “We just don’t want to see it traded off outside with snowmelt systems and burn up everything that we’ve gained over the past six years through these energy code adoptions.”

The cities of Aspen and Vail have expressed regret for how they have handled the construction of snowmelt systems, and this building code update has been presented by some as an opportunity to avoid their mistake.

“They are really regretful of their large snowmelt systems and they’re trying to figure out what they can do about it in the future,” McGinlay said. “I don’t want us to become trapped with this system that will forever be a part of our legacy on council and as a community.”

Carr noted that while building codes are adopted every three years — so a snowmelt ban could always be implemented later — a gas-powered snowmelt system constructed now would still be around 25 years from now.

“When we make a decision today, it’s not something we could turn back and change three years from now because we’ve already made an impact,” Carr said, a statement that is included in the reasoning for why the building department is bringing the recommendation.

That comment wasn’t welcomed by some on council though, with Crossan instructing Carr to “listen to our comments” and Sloop saying she was “offended” by Carr’s statement.

“I would like it to not be so dramatic,” Sloop said.

In 2022, there were 78 new single-family and secondary dwelling unit permit applications in Steamboat, according to the building department’s annual report. However council chooses to draft the new building codes, they will likely impact all structures built until the end of 2026.

Crossan expressed an interest in putting a square footage maximum on snowmelt systems for residential construction, though she didn’t favor any restriction for commercial structures. Buccino toyed with the idea of lessening how much of a system needed to be powered by renewables, though Carr noted that could become very difficult to verify through the inspection process.

Tuesday’s meeting was a work session and Carr will return to council for first and second reading of an ordinance to adopt the new codes. When bringing the ordinance, Carr said he would bring council language with several different options other than the recommendation. Codes need to be adopted before the end of the year and would go into effect on Jan. 1.


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