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Climate change ranked as top strategic goal for Albemarle Supervisors

At their meeting on October 3, 2018, the six members of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors learned that their top strategic initiative for the upcoming fiscal year is to “develop and implement Phase 1 of the Climate Action Plan.”

In September, supervisors were asked at a work session to score their budgetary priorities related to the strategic plan, a document used by county staff to help develop future budgets. Each elected official was given nine dots with descending levels of weight and told to rank 12 possibilities.

Climate action scored 85 points in the exercise, which sends a signal to the county’s budget staff that elected officials want programs related to climatechange.

“As these things come forward in the budget, the board will have final say-so on everything related to resource alignment with strategic initiatives,” said county executive Jeffrey Richardson.

The second highest strategic initiative is to “expand and promote the county’s outdoor recreational parks and amenities.” That option scored 80 points. An option to pursue a regional convention center scored zero points.

The high ranking for climate change action follows on the heels of increased funding in the current fiscal year. When they adopted the budget for fiscal year 2019, Supervisors agreed with a staff recommendation to allocate money to help the county resume participation in the Local Climate Action Planning Process. LCAPP is a joint initiative between Albemarle, Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, but Albemarle stopped participating in 2011 when Republicans controlled the Board of Supervisors.

However, Supervisors reaffirmed their support for planning for climate change in September 2017.

Andy Lowe, the county’s environmental compliance manager, said the first phase of the Local Climate Action Plan will seek to establish a new goal for greenhouse gas reductions.

“Then it will also [recommend] some strategies that we will use to go out into residential areas, commercial area and our fleet and operations at our facilities,” Lowe said. “This has risen up within this last fiscal year. We allotted $100,000 to implement some quick programs that we knew we could implement and make a difference. So we have $50,000 going to the Local Energy Alliance Program to help residential energy audits.”

The money helps cover the cost of the audits, which can inform homeowner decisions about installing more efficient lighting and temperature control systems.

“This is a full gamut of all the county operations but it’s a big residential, a big transportation, a big commercial component that we don’t have control over so we need to engage the community in a lot of dialogue,” Lowe said. “Now we have staff on board to really push this forward.”

Lowe referred to the fact that funding has also gone to hire the county’s first climate program coordinator.

“Under the general supervision of the Environmental Compliance Manager, [this employee] performs responsible professional and technical work in implementing initiatives related to energy reduction and climate protection,” reads the first sentence of general definition of the job description.

But how will that description transform into reality? Several supervisors appear to have different ideas for how the person in the new position might spend their time.

“Part of the intention in that climate action plan is to look at some solid waste issues like composting,” said Supervisor Liz Palmer, a champion of local government’s role in regulating and facilitating garbage collection and recycling.

Supervisor Norman Dill said he hopes the person can work on implementing programs to help individuals, households and institutions reduce carbon emissions.

“We have somebody that’s going to be trying to do things like the PACE program so that solar and other kinds of renewable energy projects can be financed through your mortgage and tax payments,” Dill said.

Supervisor Ann Mallek said she wanted staff to think long-term because some initiatives may need financial support.

“Please be thinking about ways that we could create some kind of investment bucket that would implement this high rank, but obviously not all at once,” Mallek said. “Everything’s going to have to be done in phases.”

Supervisor Rick Randolph sounded a more cautious tone and appeared to question how much of a role the local government could play.

“When we look at climate change, the capability and capacity of Albemarle County government to address climate action is very low so I hope when you do bring this back we have clarified what local government can do and what it cannot do,” Randolph said. “We can establish goals until the cows come… about the minimization of nitrogen and phosphorous in water and minimization of methane and carbon dioxide, and that’s all well and good but our ability to implement it when on the national level that curve is moving in the opposite direction and there’s not a lot we’re able to do.”

Palmer pushed back.

“I can’t imagine that we’re trying to solve climate change in Albemarle County,” Palmer said. “My understanding is that what we’re trying to do is figure out how we can work better to enter a more circular economy, what we can do as a government to lessen our carbon footprint or however you want to do to define it.”

Richardson said there are a number or national “best practices” that localities are using across the nation.

“We can come back with measurements and suggestions from other organizations who may just a little further down the road from us,” Richardson said.

Adaptation?

There are many in the community who want local government to do more than reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With the likelihood of increasing volatility related to a changing climate, at least two supervisors have indicated they want local government to be planning now for changes that are already here.

But what role will adaptation to climate change play under this new strategic initiative? While that subject did not come up during the conversation about priorities, the topic  had come up in the supervisor’s previous item on October 3. That item was a discussion of the regional hazard mitigation plan.

“The Federal Emergency Management Agency requires plans to be developed [for localities] to be eligible to receive certain grants,” said David Benish, the county’s chief of planning. “The Virginia Department of Emergency Management encourages regional planning for preparing for natural hazards.”

“Natural hazards is kind of a broad term but it’s generally things like hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and climatic or geotectonic activity,” said Wood Hudson, a planner with the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission. “Virginia experiences about 18 tornadoes a year. Albemarle alone has experienced six tornadoes in the past five years.”

Some of those grants could go to pay for infrastructure improvements, or at the very least, cleaning out of storm drains and culverts can exacerbate flooding when they are clogged.

“Since the recent storms that we’ve had, we did update and made some changes to better recognize culverts along roadways, smaller culverts particularly on private streets,” Benish said.

Keep in mind, this discussion took place before the one on climate change and dealt with the fundamental question of whether the area is prepared to withstand extreme weather events.

“We are seeing storm behavior that really is consistent with what people have previously experienced down south of us,” Randolph said. “The climaticconditions are changing and tornados are much more of a threat.”

Randolph and other supervisors said they wanted reports on the amount of information about extreme weather events. One reason could be to ensure that the county is funding its stormwater management program effectively.

“I think it’s important that we get that on an annual basis, that we get some kind of report to the board as to what is happening climatically,” Randolph said. “

Supervisors also wanted to know if events with excessive rainfall are tracked.

“Given climate change and what we are seeing, it would be great if the region that works through TJPDC could somehow or another start tracking specific weather data for us,” said Supervisor Diantha McKeel. “I just don’t think we have the data in one place, whether its rain, wind or storms, or temperatures. For our region to be able to deal with and plan for [climate change] we have to have the data.”

There are existing sources of data, according to Allison Farole, emergency management coordinator for the emergency communications center.

“We work very closely with the National Weather Service,” Farole said. “They keep a lot of data when it comes to any natural weather events. So if you’re looking for a specific place to go and gather that data, that would be the best bet. I think the discussion of having a localized ability to track it ourselves, we have a lot of subject matter experts in this region that we can definitely pull together.”

Farole said the NWS also trains citizens to become storm reporters to collect weather-related data and information.

Greg Harper, the county’s water resource manager, said he is hoping to get that information from Jerry Stenger, the state climatologist.

Mallek said the county needs to apply for grants to help clear out debris left over from this year’s previous flooding events.

“It cannot be ignored and then the next big rain that comes is going to be made so much worse by all the mess that’s still there from May 29 and that bridge on Garth Road may say bye-bye if a few more trees hit it. That would be bad.”

What’s next?

The Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission will be briefed on a variety of related topics in the coming months. The most notable is the consideration of the Biodiversity Action Plan, which will recommend ways to preserve existing habitat. The draft plan goes before the Planning Commission on November 20.

 

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