The Year Behind Us – How We Did in 2016

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Tompkins Weekly      12-12-16

By Tom Shelley

A little less than a year ago, on January 27, I wrote a Signs of Sustainability article on some directions the local sustainability movement could pursue in the coming year. As anyone involved with efforts in climate, environmental and social and economic justice issues knows there is much pressing work that needed to be done over this past year and this article will take a look at how we did.

It was noted in the January article that Tompkins County, the City of Ithaca, the Town of Ithaca and other surrounding municipalities had developed a new or revised comprehensive plan. A comprehensive plan consists of vision statements, goals and recommendations for strategies and specific objectives to implement the plan. Such plans provide a way forward.

All of the local plans are in some stage of implementation and our local governments are to be commended for pushing their plans out to the public. It is heartening to hear references made to the plans at various public and private council, board and committee meetings. Often these references to comprehensive plans are used to support a particular proposal or project. In some cases they are used by both those for or against a specific action. For example, Maguire Family of Dealerships used sections of the City of Ithaca Comprehensive Plan to support their application for a new car dealership at the former Carpenter Business Park. Opponents of the dealership used other sections of the plan to contest the development of the new car dealership. This is democracy in action, making use of our available public policy resources.

As noted a year ago, the largest challenge we face locally and globally is climate change. Our local governments and institutions have implemented progressive greenhouse gas/carbon emissions reduction goals, usually stated in the comprehensive plan. Energy conservation, energy efficient design for new buildings, transition of transportation modes away from fossil fuel use, and rapid development of alternatives of all sorts to conventional fossil fuel consumption – including natural gas – and resistance to the development of fossil fuel storage and distribution systems are all important aspects in our efforts to combat climate change.

The Tompkins County Planning Department recently released Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventories, available on the Planning Department website. The study compares 2008 emissions with those of 2014. During this period community emissions were reduced by 21 percent and County government operations emissions were reduced by 53 percent, both ahead of projected goals. This could be really great news for our community, however, it turns out that most of our gas supply transitioned from conventional gas to fracked gas during the 2008-2014 time period.

A second study by local experts stated that greenhouse gas emissions actually increased due to leaked methane from the fracking and distribution process and the energy used to frack for the gas itself. Community emissions would be increased by up to 67 percent and County government operations emissions would be increased by 10 percent during the same 2008-2014 time period. If this is true, it is not the hoped for outcome and even more dramatically highlights our need to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

Local, sustainable and equitable development were significant topics for our communities this year. The Coalition for Sustainable Economic Development has been actively working with the City of Ithaca to revise the Community Investment Incentive Tax Abatement Program. The program did not originally incorporate any sustainability goals. Some of the sought after goals of the revised CIITAP program would be projects that incorporated energy efficiency, renewable energy, affordable housing, the hiring of a diverse local work force and payment of a living wage. The Coalition’s partners have had extensive conversations with the City, but it doesn’t appear that any changes have been made to the program so far. This is a work in progress that needs to be pursued.

Community resiliency to severe weather events is another critical topic which continued to be addressed over this past year. I think the urgency of the topic has been accelerated by the erratic weather experienced in 2016. The City of Ithaca is still actively working on the Flood Mapping and Mitigation Study. Tompkins County has been publicizing the Stream Corridor Protection and Management Program. The City of Ithaca Conservation Advisory Council released a comprehensive code review regarding stormwater management for the City of Ithaca. This document is to guide our Council and City Staff regarding storm water issues and changes in the Code that are needed. I don’t have statistics, but I have seen many more homeowners set up a stormwater collection system, driven in part by the extreme drought we had this past summer. Since severe weather isn’t just storms and floods we need to continue to prepare the community for whatever lies ahead.

Food security is a certainly an area where much energy was focused this past year. Many organizations, from regional food banks and food redistribution programs to community gardens, local school lunch programs and urban agriculture efforts, are actively attempting to address food security, equity and nutrition. The Tompkins County Food Policy Council was formed this past year and we anticipate that an active food policy group will be a great benefit to the community. Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County and its affiliates are substantial partners in many of our food security efforts. If you are interested in these issues a visit to Cooperative Extension will be illuminating.

There are other topics that may be reviewed, but in another issue. So how did we as a community do in 2016? We have made reasonably good progress in some areas and not so much or no progress in others. Overall, a C-plus. Not only do we have the challenges we faced in 2016 to grapple with in 2017, we now have to deal with a change in political regimes and the uncertainty and angst that many of us feel. I think, in the long run, more ordinary citizens will be motivated to want to work for some meaningful change at the local level.

So what can an ordinary concerned citizen do to support our collective sustainability goals? Here is a partial list:
— Educate yourself on the issues facing your local government and neighborhood.
— Learn who your local governmental representatives are and communicate your concerns to them.
— Attend and participate in meetings of local governing bodies and the many local governmental councils and advisory bodies.
— If your local representatives are not responsive run for a local office or support the efforts of those who advocate change.
— Volunteer to join the efforts of one of the local organizations that supports some aspect of sustainable development and the needed changes in your community to promote social and economic justice. Dozens of local organizations would like your assistance.
— Seek out, join and support your neighborhood association. If your neighborhood doesn’t have an active neighborhood association work with your neighbors to revive a former, inactive association or start a new neighborhood association. This is the best way to collectively address neighborhood concerns.
— Seek out ways to conserve energy, water, and food resources at the local, household level. It may not seem so on the surface, but each individual effort makes a difference!

Tom Shelley is the chairperson of the Board of Directors of Sustainable Tompkins and is involved in many local community sustainability efforts. He may be reached at

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