Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

City networking, resident involvement touted in environmental success stories

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Environmental program directors from three Maryland cities suggested involvement of citizens and information sharing between city agencies as important components of a successful environmental agenda Monday night at the Bowie work session.

Directors were invited to the meeting to share their experiences in implementing or overseeing eco-friendly plans as Bowie moves to expand its own.

The city’s Environmental Infrastructure Action Strategy Plan, adopted in September, aims to establish environmental benchmarks, consolidate conservation and pollution prevention efforts and improve the city and local environment’s sustainability.

Representatives from Annapolis, Rockville and Gaithersburg said their cities have relied on heavy involvement from citizen groups or committees to jumpstart new programs or provide input and oversight on issues of concern.

‘‘[The community] have been the ones to get the mayor to pursue green buildings and other programs,” said Erica Shingara, the Gaithersburg Environmental Services Director.

The Environmental Commission of Citizens in Annapolis also has been a driving force.

‘‘They take on environmental issues the city government may not have time to take on,” said environmental consultant Steve Carr. ‘‘We all know you can’t go out and get grants these days without partnerships.”

Annapolis also allots time for its city government to discuss environmental concerns and projects from all departments once a month. This was the type of networking concept Bowie Senior Planner Beth Chaisson said the city could implement to help consolidation efforts in environmental planning.

Bowie Department directors already meet bi-weekly at city manager meetings, but there is no environmental focus she said.

‘‘[The Annapolis meetings] focus is on environment, and we don’t have something like that but it’s possible,” Chaisson said.

Bowie also hopes to engage its residents as much as possible in its environmental projects. Citizen groups will be gearing up in February with the first Environmental Advisory Committee meeting Wednesday and its next Stream Team meeting Feb. 20.

Carr said public involvement is necessary when applying for many grants. When he is able to show potential grantees that more than 1,000 residents have participated in past Earth Day clean-ups, he said it shows them the city has the workers to carry out new projects.

The Environmental Advisory Committee, formed in October, has 11 citizen members and is overseen by Councilwoman Diane Polegin (Dist. 2) and City Planning Director Joe Meinert.

While residents in other cities have been the ones to form nonprofit environmental groups and push their governments to become more eco-friendly, Chaisson said Bowie is taking a different approach.

‘‘You could work it backwards and have the city jumpstart the effort and see how much the public will take it up,” said Chaisson. ‘‘We could have a Friends of Bowie Creeks nonprofit.”

She hopes that by getting citizens out in the creeks and streams of Bowie they will begin to develop a larger concern of what goes into the water throughout the city.

Bowie’s Environmental Infrastructure Action Strategy Plan outlines ways the city aims to reduce waste, protect surface water, manage urban forests, restore and conserve the environment and increase education and outreach.

Meinert said in some ways Bowie faces different challenges in implementation of its environmental plan. The city has no zoning authority and therefore is unable to provide incentives for green buildings or green development practices in the way some of the other three cities have.

‘‘We are still captive in land-use authority, and many of the successes we’ve obtained have been even more challenging,” said Mayor G. Frederick Robinson.

Prince George’s County District Council exercises the last authority over zoning matters. The District Council is the name given to the County Council when it convenes to discuss zoning.

But Meinert said Bowie will not have to retrofit buildings or services the way a much older city like Annapolis did. Therefore many of the city’s action plans focus on restoration and conservation for open spaces rather than upgrades to buildings or codes.

‘‘We don’t have a lot of failing systems [to upgrade]” Meinert said. ‘‘So we need to get people educated on environmental issues.”

E-mail Andrea Noble at