Monday, October 01, 2007

Towns starting to share ideas on going 'green'

Maine Today
October 1, 2007


Dan Gair pitched the idea of creating an Eliot Energy Commission to the town's Board of Selectmen last year after reading the book "Plan B 2.0," about the need to change course and build a sustainable global economy.

Sensing energy-cost savings and the mounting push to address climate change, the town convened a commission, which has since written ordinances to regulate future wind and solar generator proposals, performed a townwide energy audit and put together a biodiesel forum for towns in the southern part of York County to discuss cooperative purchasing.

Eliot is one of many towns across Maine now pursuing environmental initiatives, although many of the efforts are happening independently of one another.

"We pretty much started from scratch and found our own way along," Gair said.

A few efforts are under way, however, to better coordinate information-sharing among unicipalities that are exploring "green" initiatives. It's a collaboration movement that Gair and others believe is necessary and beneficial, given that many municipalities enter the process with few trade secrets about best practices and how-tos.

Saco, a city on the forefront of green explorations in Maine, has already informally assisted several communities, said City Councilor Eric Cote. When Eliot's commission started, Cote provided the members with a starter "how-to" packet.

Saco began its environmental efforts about 2 years ago. Last December, the city installed its first wind turbine and is looking to install a second.

Recently, Cote traveled to York and has spoken with Kennebunk. He e-mailed Falmouth with opinions about best practices. A councilor from Oakland recently traveled to Saco to observe the city's wind turbine.

"The value we have to other communities is (that) people can come here and see it," Cote said of the turbine. "You need to get out in a neighboring community."

In seacoast Maine and New Hampshire, two state planning organizations are working to develop a more formalized plan for coordination, led by a longtime environmental journalist, John Rudolph. He is project coordinator for the Bi-State Green Project, an initiative of the Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission and the Rockingham Economic Development Corp.

The goal, Rudolph said, is to improve coordination in the public and private sectors, and eventually lay the groundwork for an environmentally friendly and energy-efficient region with increased chances of luring the emerging green technology industry.

"A lot is going on and often people in one community have no idea what's happening in the neighboring town, more or less the neighboring state," Rudolph said. "They know other people are interested in these things, but they don't know how to connect with each other."

The project kicked off two weeks ago, and Rudolph is working to develop a Web site that eventually could act as a clearinghouse of ideas for successful green initiatives. If a municipality or private entity wants to investigate solar water heaters, for instance, Rudolph envisions the Web site will provide information about who else has used them and what they experienced. The larger goal is to develop an action plan for the area by June 2008.

"(The plan) will give people the tools they need to respond to this worldwide challenge at the local level," he said.

Although the project will focus exclusively on the seacoast regions of Maine and New Hampshire, Paul Schumacher, director of the Southern Maine Regional Planning Commission, said he sees potential in a Web page for the entire southern Maine region.

A climate protection network is also in the works for communities in the state who are members of ICLEI, an international organization that helps local governments achieve sustainability goals. So far, six communities in Maine have joined the organization.

Climate protection networks already exist in Massachusetts, Virginia and Maryland, said Kim Lundgren, ICLEI's Greater Northeast regional director.

"They have a forum to share their best practices and share their pitfalls," she said. "There are always a few communities that want to be the ones out in the forefront. But many local governments, they want to know how others have done it. They want to know they're heading down a path that is really sustainable for them."

A secondary purpose of the state networks, Lundgren said, is to allow municipalities a strong voice by banding together to influence related policy at the regional and state levels.

John Bolduc, an environmental planner in Cambridge, Mass., was involved in launching Massachusetts' network in 2003. Now 36 cities in the state are part of the network, which holds quarterly meetings.

"People working in these communities were, in a way, kind of working in isolation," Bolduc said. "There aren't usually that many environmental people in local governments. It was a way to have some colleagues."

Maine's communities, said Joan Saxe, who chairs the global warming and energy committee with the Sierra Club's Maine chapter, are taking different approaches to the environmental challenge. Some have joined ICLEI, some are leaning on citizen volunteer groups, some are hiring help and others are striking out on their own. So far, 12 communities in the state have signed on to the Sierra Club's "Cool Communities" challenge to lower carbon emissions.

The Cool Communities campaign recently organized monthly conference calls as a way to increase information-sharing among members. September's call focused on how to develop a municipal climate action plan.

With the growing number of communities exploring ways to reduce emissions and save on energy costs, Rudolph, of the bi-state green project, said the time is right for a strategic regional planning effort.

"It's popping up like daisies in a hay field," he said. "It's just an explosion of interest."

Staff Writer Anne Gleason can be contacted at 282-8229 or at:

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