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Prince George’s Cool Counties Work Group Faces a New Challenge
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by Woody Woodruff | 2011

By Woody Woodruff—A new county executive and administration give us hope for a “new day” in Prince George’s County. We hope this electoral change in local leaders will lead to a more consistent and serious take on environmental issues. Sierra Club members and other environmental activists in Prince George’s County must keep informed and maintain pressure on new County Executive Rushern Baker and a county council sporting many rookie members who are unknown quantities in terms of their commitment to the environment.

Prince George’s Cool Counties Work Group Faces a New Challenge

 

By Woody Woodruff—A new county executive and administration give us hope for a “new day” in Prince George’s County.  We hope this electoral change in local leaders will lead to a more consistent and serious take on environmental issues. Sierra Club members and other environmental activists in Prince George’s County must keep informed and maintain pressure on new County Executive Rushern Baker and a county council sporting many rookie members who are unknown quantities in terms of their commitment to the environment.

One effective pressure point in the previous political cycle was the Cool Counties Working Group, mostly made up of SC members, which focused on how the county, a nearly $3 billion enterprise, can reduce its own carbon-user footprint and save money at the same time. A set of proposals developed by the local group was presented to the county council on June 17, 2008, when the council voted to make Prince George’s a “Cool County.”

The past tense “was” lets you know that the working group has been little more than a letterhead for the past year or so after an active start.  Early bright spots—emphatically including the hiring of an energy manager to negotiate performance contracts with suppliers and users of energy—faded as the energy manager was laid off in the post-recession budget crunch. We got little or no cooperation from the Jack Johnson administration as his regime wound down in its last days.

Looking for allies, the Cool Counties Working Group began a full-scale effort in early 2009 in concert with the newly-formed Prince George’s Green Power Coalition, which focused on an inside-outside game for environmental progress.  They jointly proposed for the county, in addition to improving on its own footprint, to provide an array of laws, policies, and support activities promoting green jobs, commercial and residential efficiencies, and outside sources of funding.  But flagging commitment from the administration meant mixed progress.  Even as he praised the (then still employed) new energy manager position and quick work on “low-hanging fruit” like LED traffic lights and motion-sensitive lighting in county office buildings, Green Power Coalition (and Cool Counties Working Group) member Gary Frank of Cheverly wrote in a Gazette op-ed that the county “may be squandering the chance to land millions of dollars in federal stimulus funds to significantly reduce the county’s energy consumption and increase the production of renewable energy.”

Indeed, a visionary solar power farm sited at the county landfill might have been on the table when Federal stimulus funds were still available, Frank said.  But now his fear that “it appears that we are missing the opportunity to use stimulus funds” for such activities appears to be borne out by the absence of that solar project from most current wish lists.

Moving to the current agenda, the Baker transition team’s environmental element—“Green Development Subcommittee”—proposes long-term and short-term, major and small-ball changes. All of these proposed changes aim to “save the county money, create jobs, facilitate investment, and put the county ahead of other jurisdictions.”

Long-term goals of concentrating the county’s employees at a major mass transit node and fashioning a green-oriented but streamlined, user-friendly set of development and permit regulations are coupled with a short-term goal of a planning board and chair “who understand and adequately represent the county’s varied land uses and will promote green planning/development.” 

A broad and immediate goal is “an integrated approach to sustainability.  By creating an Office of Sustainability and/or appointing a Chief Sustainability Officer, collaboration across agencies can occur and ensure the best coordinated planning…. a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) who reports directly to the County Executive [should be appointed]. The CSO would oversee all efforts towards planning and implementation of a sustainable future for our County, including directing a short-term Green Economy Task Force and an ongoing Sustainability Advisory Council … to establish goals, research best practices, create implementation plans, and coordinate implementation of policy and operational changes and assess progress towards our goals.” 

Baker himself has made a promise in this vein to which he can and should be held. His November 16 blog on the county executive’s website asserted, “I understand that sustainable practices not only save our environment, but also save county tax payer’s money . . . A cornerstone of my environmental policy agenda is the creation of a Prince George’s Office of Sustainability. This office will work with every county department to make sure their policies are environmentally friendly and internal procedures and practices are ‘green’.”

The transition report, which activists should push with both the county executive and council, includes many excellent recommendations that are outside the scope of the “Cool Cities/Cool Counties” agenda of reducing the local governments’ footprint. They include stimulating a local green building industry by retrofitting county-owned buildings to LEED standards when renovation is needed, as well as incentivizing publicity of green development at high-visibility spots like Metro stations; assembling citizen and expert panels to develop green jobs programs; meshing local redevelopment plans with the 2010 state law that fast-tracks plans with strong green components; and focusing on local food production and accessibility.

 

In pushing the transition report’s elements, the Sierra Club should take note that:

·         environmental justice issues need to be included in any package of programs to ensure diversified access, benefits, and participation in a greener county; and

·         more emphasis is needed on local alternative energy production for residential as well as commercial uses.

 

As the Cool Counties Working Group reassembles to tackle the new administration and council, we can look ruefully at things we should have done but haven’t:          

·         Reaching out to citizen and neighborhood groups;

·         Building our membership in each district so we can lobby each council member;

·         Presenting a new list of proposals, including our Sierra Club group’s goal of hands-on environmental education in county schools and at Prince George’s Community College; and

·         Adding the Port Towns to Edmonston as Cool Cities (“the cool Port Towns”) and work to add other cities.

 

A statewide sustainability conference is scheduled for Thursday, April 14 at Arlington Echo in Millersville, Md. It will gather participants from around the state to network and discuss current sustainability trends. We can send three representatives.  The deadline for registration is March 10, but a wait list or late registration may be possible at http://shopdnr.com/sustainability.aspx.  The group’s contact person for the conference is John Wald at jwald@dnr.state.md.us or 410-260-8073.                                                        n

 

Woody Woodruff is a member of the Prince George’s Cool Counties Working Group.

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