Plotting the best course for sustainability

Climate activists from Brattleboro Common Sense held a "lie-down" protest at the annual Strolling of the Heifers parade in June.

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BRATTLEBORO — There's no question that improving sustainability is vital to Brattleboro's future. The question is whether funding sustainability projects or hiring someone to take on such endeavors is right for this community.

For the Select Board meeting Tuesday, when the subject will come up again, Brattleboro Energy Committee Chairman Oscar Heller has submitted responses from people holding related jobs in other communities.

"There is no right answer ... I always think you have to be strategic about the opportunities," said Wayne Felden, director of planning and sustainability in Northampton, Mass., who reported leveraging about $6 in grants and fundraising for every $1 of municipal funds. "I am a big believer that developing a sustainability culture is as important or more than individual projects, and that takes a day in and day out effort that requires staff."

A dedicated position "ensures follow through," said Stephanie Ciccarello, sustainability coordinator in Amherst, Mass. "It is likely that the position will ultimately pay for itself with additional cost savings and/or increased revenue for the town."

Capital improvements can be made with a dedicated energy committee and willing Select Board, said Geoff Martin, energy coordinator in Hartford, Vt. "But there are other opportunities that are more likely to be missed without an energy coordinator. There are also many other things that an energy coordinator can do that don't result in immediate or tangible savings, but that are just as important. These are things that money alone can't buy."

Martin told Heller he believes Hartford will become the first municipality in Vermont to have an electric vehicle in its fleet when it gets a Nissan Leaf in the next month or so.  The Brattleboro Select Board approved the purchase of a hybrid vehicle last year.

During annual Representative Town Meeting in March, the warned article for energy efficiency and sustainability was increased from $10,000 to $100,000. There have been questions over whether the funding boost was meant to create a position. The money is to be spent at the Select Board's discretion.

"The time for action is at hand, if it's not already past," states a letter from community members who have been working out the details around hiring a sustainability coordinator. "The challenges we face will only get worse."

The employee would serve as the town's advocate and as a liaison between various groups, according to the letter. They also would be "an expert resource."

Their projects might include improving infrastructure, identifying more opportunities for low- and moderate-income housing, promoting sustainable building practices, encouraging more use of public transit, ensuring pedestrian and bicyclist accessibility, finding ways to be more fuel efficient, producing solar power on municipal property, protecting agriculture, creating more community gardens and urban agriculture, decreasing downtown traffic, improving voter turnout, and making town government more inclusive and diverse.

The town's Energy Committee and Planning Commission have both supported the hiring of a sustainability coordinator. The Representative Town Meeting Finance Committee recently joined the group, approving a resolution urging the board to create and fund the position but also provide guidance on what sustainability will mean.

In a letter to the editor, Select Board member Elizabeth McLoughlin suggested spending a smaller sum on a consultant who would focus on seeing what households can do to help fight against climate change. She said the money could also be used to act faster to implement projects in a 2016 energy audit on municipal buildings, add solar arrays to roofs of town facilities, and identify and fund additional bike racks and charging stations for electric vehicles.

"In addition, the Energy Committee can revive tasks they have done in the past, by partnering with non-profits ... to sponsor workshops, provide free energy assessments, support business and home weatherization projects, and conduct renewable energy workshops," she wrote.

Other "sustainability" items for the Select Board to consider Tuesday night include progress reports on achieving energy-related goals in the town plan and implementing projects recommended in a 2016 energy audit. And Town Planning Director Sue Fillion is looking to apply to host a climate change vulnerability assessment and adaptation planning workshop.

"The workshop and resulting report would bring value to the next hazard mitigation plan," she wrote in a memo, noting that plan will expire in 2021. "In addition, a comprehensive public planning process like the workshop could help improve Brattleboro's rating in the community rating system of the National Flood Insurance Program."

The board also will consider a request by local activists to declare a climate emergency. At the last meeting, members of Brattleboro Common Sense stood in front of the board with a banner, refusing to leave until they shared their views and had gotten the board to agree to take up the issue at its next meeting. The group also briefly interrupted the annual Strolling of the Heifers parade in June by lying down in the middle of the parade route.

Their proposed resolution urges the community to look at climate change as it would war and schedule regular meetings to figure out ways to conserve fuel, create subsidies for people to use renewable energy sources, share transportation and make local ordinances with an eye to minimizing greenhouse gases.

"For unity's sake," the resolution reads, "let no one scorn those who deny the crisis, since their inaction has been no worse than ours who believe it. We have all been living our lives and denying the climate crisis together. Let us bravely acknowledge and address the emergency we face together."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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