Albemarle Supervisors briefed on progress of climate action plan

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JUNE 17, 2020: Work in Albemarle County to meet ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals is moving forward, even though the Board of Supervisors has not yet adopted an official Climate Action Plan (CAP). 

“We have recently begun the process of developing a current inventory and expect to be complete with this inventory before the end of the calendar year,” said Greg Harper, chief of environmental services for Albemarle County. 

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The cover page for the plan

On June 17, Harper and other staff briefed elected officials and the public on the status of the CAP, which seeks to coordinate ongoing work to address climate change. Supervisors adopted a strategic plan on November 7, 2018 whose top priority is “Climate Action Planning”. Eleven months later, they adopted a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and to be “net zero” by 2050. 

“The main content of the plan is the strategies and actions that the county will take in the coming years to mitigate climate change,” Harper said. 

The draft CAP is a year in the making, and would have come before Supervisors earlier, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused delays. 

“We completed the draft climate action plan document in early March and you’re probably aware that we had intended to present the plan to you and the public in mid-March but shifted our strategy due to the consequences of the coronavirus,” said Greg Harper, chief of environmental services for Albemarle. “Therefore we spent part of March and April developing materials through which to introduce the plan to the community virtually.” 

One issue is that none of us in the community really knows where we stand now because the last greenhouse gas inventory was conducted a dozen years ago in 2008. There are ten years until the first new target date. 

“While we are halfway in time to the first target date from the last inventory, we have not conducted a greenhouse gas emission inventory in the last decade so we don’t know how much progress if any we have made towards that target,” Harper said. 

The draft Climate Action Plan is a 41-page document that results from a series of public input sessions held last summer.  The work is arranged in five sectors, ranging from transportation to building materials. Early on it was determined that the plan should also take into account how reducing greenhouse gas emissions can also improve the community.  

“Successful climate action should benefit the local community in multiple ways beyond just reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said Gabe Dayley, an environmental services staffer. “In the document we identify three areas of co-benefits that Albemarle’s Climate Action Plan will support. One is economic prosperity. Two, community health and three, the local natural environment.”

For instance, jobs might be created through weatherization or installing solar panels. Community health would be served through better air quality. 

“And in terms of local and natural environment, seeing benefits in terms of the local watershed and habitat health as we engage in actions that support carbon sequestration like planting trees [and] reforesting areas,” Dayley said. “I want to emphasize that the co-benefits are a key way in which the Climate Action Plan advances the county’s vision of a thriving economy, a healthy ecosystem, and natural resources.” 

There will also be a large equity component as well. Dayley explains. 

“This includes rigorous attention to who provides input, who has access to program benefits, and on whom financial burdens fall for programs,” Dayley said. “It’s important to consider equity in climate action planning for two main reasons. One there is a risk of worsening disparities either via poor planning or via the effect of climate change and we are already seeing that climate change is impacting vulnerable communities hardest.” 

Dayley said the climate action plan can advance equity, perhaps through better transportation systems. There will be an equity advisory group that will be added to the sector teams. 

“These sectors also [are] consistent with those presented in the 2011 report of the community-wide Local Climate Action Planning Process known as L-CAPP, and with those found in the majority of climate plans that we have reviewed from other organizations,” Harper said. 

While we may not be working from the most up to date baseline, the work needs to be measured from somewhere. According to the last inventory conducted in 2008, transportation makes up 50 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Albemarle. 

“The goals in this sector are reducing overall vehicle miles traveled and shifting towards more efficient modes of travel,” Harper said. 

Forty-five percent of emissions in the 2008 inventory traced back to buildings. There are also reduction goals that can be achieved by switching the way our goods are packaged and how we rid ourselves of unwanted food scraps. 

“Sustainable materials management goals are intended to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with decomposition of organic waste and the lifecycle of various products,” Harper said. “These goals include increasing the amount of recyclable materials put to positive use and diverted from landfills, and composting organic materials instead of landfilling them.”

The landscape sector is less about reducing reduction goals, and more about offsetting emissions. Harper said this is done by calculating the value of existing open land. 

“In this case primarily by capturing and trapping carbon in vegetation, soil and products like timber, “ Harper said. “The major goals of this sector include protecting and restoring natural carbon sinks throughout the county and promoting practices on managed land that trap carbon and minimize emissions.” 

Now, what about timelines? A listing of all of the actions includes a proposed timeframe ranging from “assess opportunities’ to ‘immediately actionable.” Let’s go through some transportation examples. 

“An example of immediately actionable item is to increase public information about bicycle and pedestrian safety,” Harper said. “I think it’s pretty obvious that this action would not require a great amount of time from staff nor would it cost very much money.” 

An example of “initiate planning” would be to prepare for electrical infrastructure on government properties. An example of “assess opportunities” would be to increase affordable housing opportunities along transit lines. 

“This isn’t something the county can simply do on its own,” Harper said. “It would involve perhaps planners in [community] development working with developers or other stakeholders during master planning  processes or during review of projects requiring special use permits or rezonings.” 

After the presentation, Supervisors had the chance to ask questions about the plan. 

“The one thing that I didn’t see in this plan, in this climate action plan, that I would like to see [is] is to emphasize our growth management plan and our hard development lines that we have,” said Supervisor Liz Palmer. “Just to reiterate, those are important for natural resource protection. It’s also important for our transportation goals.”

Palmer said she wanted to establish metrics to evaluate open-space conservation agreements to make sure those who plant native species and pollinators are eligible for credits.

“I was pained by a 27 acre property that was all natural grasses and native species in my district that was turned into a haying operation after they lost their tax break,” Palmer said, referring to recent changes to the county’s agricultural-forest districts. 

Palmer is a proponent of providing more opportunities for Albemarle residents to bring their solid waste and recycling. 

Supervisor Diantha McKeel said one major element of county government is missing from the draft plan.

“I think we should be reaching out to the school division, the administration, the School Board about their input and feedback because when we’re talking about plastics, recycling, reducing vehicle miles, greenhouse gas emissions… it doesn’t matter what we’re talking about, I think just believe in my heart of hearts that the school division has a stake in this.” 

Supervisor Ann Mallek said there is a lack of specific details in the draft.

“I’m hearing from lots of citizens is that there are lots of nice words but we really want to see who’s going to do it, measurable goals, how do we know when we’ve got there,” Mallek said. “So I’m very excited to hear and I’ve been waiting for years to hear that the baseline should be done by December. Then we will actually have the first data since 2008.” 

Mallek said she would like to see research conducted into how other localities recommend different crops to maximize carbon sequestration. She also wants to see changes to land use rules that would help increase the county’s overall tree canopy. 

“We have an opportunity to change our zoning, our site plan regulations to have less destruction of established forests which is then replaced by spindly little trees the size of my arm that takes 15 years to do any good,” Mallek said.

Supervisor Bea LaPisto Kirtley said she would like the county to build more places for people to bring their trash. 

“We have the lowest amount of convenience centers in the surrounding counties which I think is kind of embarrassing and so I think that’s something we could and should do frankly quickly,” LaPisto Kirtley said. 

Supervisor Ned Gallaway noted that much in the plan is already underway, such one strategy and action designed to decrease vehicle miles traveled. 

“I would challenge, like in the immediate action items, T.5.1 to ‘continue to improve coordination between public transit providers,’” Gallaway said. “But that’s the goal of the Regional Transit Partnership. It just sounds like a throwaway goal that’s in here. It’s something that we plugged in because we had a transit item.”

Gallaway said there are opportunities to learn from work-from-home strategies employed by many people throughout the region. Lance Stewart, the director of environmental services, said this idea is being measured and will be in the next draft. 

“Just a few weeks ago the county executive’s office issued an employee survey about the coronavirus and teleworking and specifically asked how many times a week do you come into the office and how many times do you stay home?” Stewart said. “How many miles is your round-trip? So we can start to think as we develop our own internal thinking about teleworking going forward, what is the impact on our employees and that our employees can have by not commuting on greenhouse gas emissions and also the cost savings that they experience as employees without having to pay for gas. 

The Board is being requested to continue to offer input on the plan through July 15. A final version of the draft plan could be before the Board in mid-August.

“If the feedback we receive from the board requires more substantive changes to the Climate Action Plan the process could be extended in time and we might need to schedule an additional work session before plan approval,” Harper said. 

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