Local wins few but sweet

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By Gord Stewart

With the election looming, all eyes are on the national prize. Yet we mustn’t forget how many important decisions are made at the local level.

Local government plays a crucial role in many sustainability initiatives – like protecting trees, installing solar, providing green space, conserving water, and creating cycleways, to name just a few.

I have committed time, energy and heart over the years trying to convince our district council to care about such things. Some I have taken on as part of our local Transition Town group; others I have done off my own bat.   

It started with the trees. The council was reviewing its method for tree protection and moving to adopt a system that would reduce the number of protected trees by some 86 percent. I was particularly incensed by this as we were living on a rural property at the time and proud guardians of a dozen 100-year-old English oaks. They’d barely get protection under the new regime.

Rumour had it there were some protected trees on council land they wanted gone and the only way was to lower the standard. They’re also pressured by ratepayers, who might say leaves are a hassle in autumn or the trees provide too much shade. The council ‘consulted’ on the issue. Along with others, I did a written submission, gave an oral presentation – and we lost. Down come the trees.

We pushed for solar power on the council’s new civic centre and library. The building was wired during construction for “possible solar at some point in the future”. Why not now? They never looked into it. Give us your energy-use data, we said, we’ll do it. Analysts at Solarcity, bless their hearts, crunched the numbers for us for free and said there’s a case for solar.

The council asked its energy consultant to review Solarcity’s work. There is, indeed, a case for solar he said and recommended council install it. A staff person then ‘workshopped’ it with councillors. They came back to us with questions. We answered. It shouldn’t be this difficult.

Four years on, council voted ‘Yes’. The system now in place is projected to generate more than 300,000kWh of electricity over 25 years and reduce carbon emissions by 29,600 kg CO2-e.

Savour the victory. As David Brower, lifelong environmental activist and a real hero of mine, once said: “The way to instill youthful confidence and avoid octogenarian burnout is to enjoy at least one consecutive success.”

Then there’s the vacant council-owned section across the street from the civic centre. Five years ago we proposed to council that our group develop it into a nice park and public space. Decision delayed as it was needed for a pop-up office cum library during construction. Also, it “might be needed for parking”. 

Knowing council would have a park vs parking debate, one member of our group undertook a study. He determined there were 456 on-street parking spaces an easy three-to-eight-minute walk from the centre of town. Gotcha!

Councils should care. Trees are eminently worth saving.

Council said ‘Yes’ to the park late last year. The lease proposed has our group paying rates, nearly $2000 annually, and carrying insurance (someone’s sure to get a blister digging in the garden!). You’d almost think council’s stance was: We have a community group here wanting to do good things; let’s make it as difficult for them as possible. Quite some time ago, we asked that the rates be waived and insurance not be required. We’re still awaiting a reply.

Speaking of waiting for a reply, I had written to council about our water supply system and the lack of attention to water conservation and long-term planning. (This issue has been of particular interest to me in my consulting work.) I wrote to council in March and again in July, and nary a word back. I kid you not, but a long email has come in from the CEO just now as I write this column. Pretty unsatisfactory, but at least a reply.

Finally, there’s the issue of around-town cycleways. (No excuses here. The place is flat as a Dutch pancake.) Council has acknowledged the value of infrastructure for safe cycling in its District Plan since at least 2009, but has never done anything about it. Our Transition Town group picked up on this and submitted a proposal for a cycleway network last spring. The reply from council: “There is no appetite for it at this time”.

I was ready to resign. Emma, a young member of our group and bless her heart too, said we have to push on. So we revised and updated the proposal – shared footpaths, shared walkways, on-road bike lanes – and she prepared a brilliant map showing all the routes.

We are now getting wonderful letters of support for the plan. These include from the local schools (safety), the medical community (healthy, active living) and the business association (will take the pressure off parking).  

We are meeting with two district councillors soon to discuss. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  • Gord Stewart is a sustainability consultant with a background in environmental management and economics

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