Charleston's sustainable future after the Green Plan 

Focus on growing green business, sustainable communities

After 26 meetings and 120 subcommittee meetings, with the contributions of more than 800 individuals, the City of Charleston's Green Committee submitted a 181-page Green Plan to city leaders in February. With an ambitious goal to reduce the city's carbon emissions by 83 percent in 40 years, the plan included dozens of recommendations for stricter building codes, business practices like a recycling plan or a four-day work week, and city planning that would encourage alternative transportation.

Meeting resistance from conservative members on City Council, the plan was scaled back — suggestions for mandates and requirements became recommendations and opportunities for voluntary participation. Two years ago, the Green Committee was tasked with advising the city on implementing the plan, but the council is poised to place that responsibility in the hands of a new ad hoc committee focused on the bottom-line impact to business.

Councilman Gary White, one of the most vocal skeptics of the city's recent green initiatives, says the committee will serve as a clearing house for the Green Plan's many proposals.

"The directive for the Green Committee was to come up with any and all ideas," he says.

The new committee will be made up of six randomly selected council members (rotated annually), the mayor, and four other groups: SCE&G, the State Ports Authority, the Metro Chamber of Commerce, and area homebuilders.

This a powerful voting block — these members would only need two votes from the committee's elected representatives to scuttle any initiative that would burden their corporate interests.

The environmental community won't be represented on the new committee. The city's sustainability staff will advise the ad hoc committee, but they won't have a vote. White says the Green Committee is represented in the 181-page document.

Noting the "somewhat surprising controversy" when the plan was introduced to council, Mayor Joe Riley says the make-up of the new committee was important to offer a venue for more input.

The mayor expects the ad hoc committee will offer a way toward consensus on Green Plan suggestions and offer assurance to those more worried about the larger science of global warming than the clear difference between a parking lot and a bike rack.

The Green Plan isn't dead yet. Less controversial ideas on green communities will be included in several zoning and planning changes later this year. And the Green Committee and the city's sustainability staff are learning from the political fight and finding a path forward that focuses on voluntary practices. No more mandates.

One Plan or Another

As a state requirement, a Municipal Comprehensive Plan lays out the city's long-term vision for growth and zoning — things like where growth should stop on Johns Island and what kind of businesses should go on Savannah Highway. Several of the priorities in the Green Plan will be included in the updated Comprehensive Plan, which will go before the city council this spring.

"The Green Plan was a set of recommendations, including community and transportation recommendations," says Tim Keane, the city's lead planner. "The way you move beyond those recommendations is in the comprehensive plan."

It will be an early challenge for some of the sustainable ideas laid out in the Green Plan. Lazy developers won't be punished, but there will be plenty of incentives for those builders ready to go green. That could include increased density in areas where the city wants more mass transit and walkable communities or streamlined permitting for green projects.

"We should make the growth we want as easy as possible," Keane says.

The staff is also working on an updated tree preservation plan that will implement green ideas like connected green spaces and preserving a collection of trees, as opposed to individual, significant trees. The Johns Island code and modified street standards will also include smart growth practices like targeted, dense development to encourage mass transit and grid traffic patterns.

"All of that manifests itself in an environment utterly different than conventional subdivisions spreading across the landscape," Keane says.

A handful of businesses are taking the initiative on sustainable practices. Several recent projects have included recycled flooring and other sustainable materials. Others have incorporated green standards like energy efficient windows and geothermal heating and air systems.

Taco Boy is acquiring permits for a variety of projects at the Huger Street location that will make it a leader in green practices, including a recycling system on site and a system to collect stormwater to reuse for irrigation — avoiding runoff and reducing water use.

The restaurant is one of the earliest of early adapters for a lot of these practices, but Taco Boy is an example of a businesses voluntarily limiting it's environmental impact.

"I think we can get a long way down that road (toward reduced carbon emissions) with a voluntary program and by highlighting these practices," says city Sustainability Director Brian Sheehan.

The city will take the lessons Taco Boy has learned and share them with other restaurants and businesses, he says.

"That's not their job," he says. "It's our job to tell that story."

The city is hoping to share some of those lessons through the Green Business Challenge, an initiative targeting business owners with a desire to reduce their energy use but who lack any environmental savvy beyond screwing in low-impact light bulbs.

"We'll walk businesses through a process that helps them save energy and money and reduce waste," Sheehan says.

Life After Politics

With the task of shepherding ordinances now passed on to someone else, education and advocacy become primary responsibilities for the Green Committee.

Susan Collins, the chair of the education subcommittee, started a strategy session last week with the practical reality that vigorous support for the Green Plan isn't a priority for most city residents.

"For a lot of people, their awareness level is very low," she says before looking around the room. "We're on the inspired level. We're passionate about this. A lot of people aren't. They're not engaged."

In framing a new message that will attract more attention, the committee isn't just shooting for those indifferent to Mother Earth. There's a more important faction willing to get engaged on the other side of the debate: the local Tea Party. Members came to City Council meetings in February to denounce the Green Plan and laughing at any reference to climate change.

"They're not crazy," Collins says. "That's an audience we need to understand — understand who they are and how to approach them."

You don't get through to these folks by scaring them with nightmare scenarios about climate change and rising ocean waters. Aside from offering a few really awful blockbusters, armageddon has never been a very effective selling tool.

Ideas batted around included focusing on the very values conservatives claim to hold dear — things like individual responsibility and reverence for patriotic duty. It's also important to frame the issue as a private industry priority, not just a government program.

Sheehan says they'd be remiss not to mention the biggest factor that could sway those on the fence and on the other side of the green debate: the money.

"There are too many people out of work not to mention the job creation and economic impact of this movement," he says. "It's an economic argument right now."

Sheehan is developing a strategic plan that, while mentioning the carbon reductions that were key to the Green Plan, focuses mainly on the economy supported by sustainability. A lot of the work won't require the kinds of ordinances or financing that would need approval from the City Council or any vetting by the ad hoc committee.

With a wealth of, well, wealth flowing into green programs (as much as $2 billion in the first quarter of this year), the city is going to track where those dollars are going and seek out ways to draw more of that capital to the Lowcountry. That includes a focus on businesses like Suryon Biofertilizers, a start-up fostered at the city's Flagship incubator.

"Those are the kinds of businesses we want to grow — good paying jobs with high growth potential," says Sheehan.

Local college programs will soon be turning out experts on wind turbine technology and green building practices, and the city should encourage more programs for growing sustainable experts.

The city will also be using its own resources to experiment on green practices. Sheehan points to the ceiling of his office at 75 Calhoun St. "We're going to put a green roof on it and see how much money we save," he says. "Every building, every sidewalk, every street is a laboratory."


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