Can a city force its homeowners to insulate?

A backlash brewing against Portland's mandatory home insulation ordinance could pull the linchpin out of the city's innovative new energy conservation policy, which has attracted nationwide attention.

The insulation requirement, approved last August by the Portland City Council , has served as a model for a similar ordinance in Davis, Calif. Both Eugene, Ore., and Seattle, Wash., are considering such laws, says Portland energy adviser Marion Hemphill.

Actually, Portland's entire energy- saving program is the target of a group of residents who are collecting petition signatures to put the mandatory insulation question to the voters on the November ballot. But the opposition centers on the section that requires that all Portland homes and apartments be weatherized, according to standards set by the city, by 1984.

Eldon Dean, a leader of the signature-collecting group called Freedom from Force, says he doesn't mind the rest of the Portland energy conservation program , which includes incentives for recycling, solar power, and car pooling. But he is adamantly opposed to the weatherization required on all Portland homes and apartments by 1984.

Mr. Dean argues that residents will voluntarily insulate their homes as heating prices soar. "Economics will automatically take care of the problem if government lets the free-enterprise system work. How else did we make the transition from burning wood and coal to oil and natural gas?" asks the owner of a Portland wholesale appliance firm.

Mr. Hemphill disagrees. If a portion of the population does not curb energy use, its demand in the marketplace drives up the cost of energy for everyone, he says.

"It's a matter of equity," Mr. Hemphill declares. He estimates that for an investment of about $300 million, city residents could save $1.2 billion on their energy bills by 1995.

Low-interest, and even no-interest, loans for weatherization will be available soon through Portland Energy Conservation Inc., a nonprofit corporation recently set up by the city. May 19 is the organization's target date for the opening of "one-stop conservation centers" for insulation loans, energy audits, and workshops on ways to save money.

Here is how the home insulation law will be enforced: Each home will have to be certified as weatherproofed by the owner before it can be sold. The buyer will be able to sue if the insulation is not up to par.

But according to Mr. Hemphill, Portland is considering making it a misdemeanor not to obey the weatherproofing ordinances. This way, the city could enforce the law instead of leaving it to homeowners.

A public opinion poll of city residents taken during the City Council debate of the law last summer showed that almost half opposed mandatory weatherization. Nonetheless, Mr. Hemphill says he is not worried.

He says the same opponents tried and failed to make the mid-January filing deadline to get the same question put on the Portland's May election ballot. The Freedom from Force group has to collect 15,000 signatures by July 1 to get their referendum on the ballot.

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