In early September, the city of Ann Arbor was one of four finalists for a $1 million, three-year sustainability project funded by the Home Depot Foundation. Ann Arbor didn’t make the final cut – Charleston, South Carolina and Fayetteville, Arkansas were selected – but city staff are now pursuing a grant of up to $100,000 from Home Depot that could fund a shorter-term initiative, building on existing sustainability efforts.
The grant was discussed at a working session of the Ann Arbor planning commission earlier this month. Matt Naud – the city’s environmental coordinator – told The Chronicle that the city will likely file the grant application in early December.
Ann Arbor’s Current Sustainability Efforts
The topic of sustainability has emerged in public discussions more frequently over the past year or so, and both city staff and appointed members to some of the city’s commissions have begun to focus on the issue. The city’s environmental commission has a “sustainable community” committee, formed in 2008, which has discussed ways to expand the city’s goals to include social equity and economic vitality, in addition to environmental considerations. Steve Bean, Anya Dale and Kirk Westphal serve on that committee, with staff support from Naud.
More broadly, an April 2010 joint working session of the city’s planning, environmental and energy commissions was convened to discuss ways that the city could work toward building a more sustainable future. From Chronicle coverage of that meeting:
The discussion touched on the conceptual as well as the concrete, with some commissioners urging the group to tackle practical considerations as well. The chairs of each commission – [planning commission chair Bonnie] Bona, the energy commission’s Wayne Appleyard, and Steve Bean of the environmental commission – set the stage by talking about the roles of their appointed public bodies, and how sustainability might be incorporated into their work.
Specific ideas discussed during the session included financing energy improvements in households through a special self-assessment on property tax bills, and tapping expertise at the University of Michigan.
More than midway through the meeting they were joined by Terry Alexander, executive director of UM’s Office of Campus Sustainability. He described UM’s efforts at implementing sustainable practices on campus as well as creating a living/learning environment for students, teaching them what it means to be a “green citizen.”
Toward the end of the meeting, Bona noted that the issue extended far beyond the three commissions gathered around the table. Housing, parks and other areas need to be involved as well, she said, if they were truly to tackle the three elements of sustainability: environmental quality, social equity, and economic vitality.
The topic of sustainability also had been part of the discussion at a March 2010 retreat of the planning commission. One of the aspects of that discussion included the need to define what sustainability means. From Chronicle coverage of the March retreat:
Jean Carlberg asked Bonnie Bona what she meant by sustainability, which Bona had brought up in the brainstorming session. Bona replied that it was something the community needed to decide: “That’s the first question – what is it?”
She added that sustainability is an all-or-nothing concept – something is either sustainable, or it isn’t. Bona also identified three elements of sustainability: environmental quality, social equity, and economic vitality. “I don’t think we look at any one of them as a planning commission,” she said. …
Kirk Westphal said that tangentially, the commission does deal with those elements of sustainability. He also stressed the importance of looking at a “sustainability watershed” – that is, a broader geographic area within which a community is sustainable. For example, adding another resident to the city increases its carbon footprint, he said, but “do we take one for the team?” Westphal also noted that even the worst non-LEED building in the city is better than the greenest structure five miles outside of town, if you have to drive there.
The concept of sustainability also touched on fiscal impacts of development. Westphal noted that when he talked about “the city’s money” earlier in the discussion, Pratt had remarked that it’s everyone’s money. Pratt is right, Westphal said – it’s taxpayers’ money. But the positive aspects of adding to the tax base through development are rarely mentioned. People talk about “greedy developers,” but they don’t look at how the taxes generated from a development go toward plowing the streets, for example.
Pratt noted that as the tax base shrinks, the current levels of service are no longer sustainable – unless people are willing to pay more for the same services.
Later during the March retreat, Wendy Rampson – head of the city’s planning staff – asked whether the commission wanted to make sustainability a staff priority. Commissioners indicated that while it was worth having more discussion about it, other issues took higher priority at that point.
The Home Depot Foundation Grant
At the planning commission’s Nov. 9 working session, Matt Naud told commissioners that while sustainability is an aspect of several city efforts – including its State of Our Environment goals and indicators, the Huron River and Impoundment Management Plan, and the Parks and Recreation Open Space Plan – there isn’t a specific sustainability plan that brings all of these elements together.
Naud said the Home Depot Foundation has up to $100,000 available for developing a sustainability plan, one that would incorporate the city’s existing efforts into a more cohesive approach. The city’s proposal would likely entail hiring someone to take on the project for a year, he said. One aspect might be to do a gap analysis – what are the city’s current sustainability goals, and what needs to be done to reach them? He asked commissioners for their feedback about what elements to include in making the grant application.
Home Depot Grant: Commissioner Discussion
Jean Carlberg noted that cost always seems to be absent from discussions of sustainability. Almost all sustainability efforts are costly – and for the individual homeowner, she said, it’s generally too expensive. Bonnie Bona responded to that observation, saying that to take a house to “net zero” – a term indicating that the house uses only energy generated on-site – could be a 40-year process, with expenses spread out over that period. Naud noted that costs to achieve net-zero status are coming down. Just 10 years ago, it would have cost significantly more than today.
It would be more affordable using tools like the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, Bona said, or if homeowners set aside money they see from energy savings to make additional energy-related modifications.
In a PACE program, the city could use municipal bonds to fund the upfront installation of a solar system to a resident’s home, for example. The resident would then pay the city through self-assessed property taxes, probably over 15 to 20 years. Enabling legislation for PACE sponsored by state Rep. Rebekah Warren of Ann Arbor passed the House earlier this year, but a Senate version scaled back the program to cover only commercial properties. That bill passed the state Senate in September, but hasn’t yet been acted on by the House.
During the Nov. 9 working session, Eric Mahler, chair of the planning commission, suggested that they needed to come up with a working definition of sustainability. The best one he’d heard, he said, described sustainability as meeting the community’s current needs without impacting the needs of future generations.
Bona referred to the discussion at the April joint working session, and said she walked away from that meeting with the sense that people were interested in setting targets and measuring outcomes related to sustainability. Naud said they didn’t want to propose a pie-in-the-sky project, but rather they could assess where the city stands now, envision where they want to be, and identify specific goals to get there.
Naud said that in the past there had been discussion of setting broad sustainability goals, but there’d been some pushback to that. Instead, the environmental commission and staff developed a set of environmental goals that were easier to measure, he said. With this Home Depot Foundation grant, there’s the possibility of developing a framework for the city’s sustainability efforts, Naud said. That would allow the city to pick three or four specific goals to work toward, then build funding for those efforts into the city’s two-year budget cycle, he said.
Rampson gave the example of looking at land use through a framework of sustainability, which might include issues of transportation access, or the balance of housing in relation to employment centers. That kind of framework could be used when looking at development along one of the city’s main corridors, like Washtenaw Avenue or South State Street.
Saying that the prospect of getting grant funding for this initiative sounded great, Mahler wondered whether the project would have the support of city council. Carlberg pointed out that councilmembers were unlikely to turn down money. Rampson noted that some city councilmembers – including mayor John Hieftje, Margie Teall (Ward 4) and Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) – had been involved in the round of interviews that Home Depot executives had conducted this summer for the $1 million sustainability project.
Commissioners suggested pulling in other groups – Bona noted that at the April working session, Hieftje had expressed the importance of working with neighboring communities in whatever sustainability initiative the city might take on. She also said they had discussed working with the city’s park advisory commission and housing commission, in addition to the planning, energy and environmental commissions. Carlberg added that UM should be involved too.
In making their current proposal, Rampson said, they need to identify a project that the Home Depot Foundation could use as a case study. It needs to be something the city can do within the grant budget and timeframe, she said. A project that seems achievable is looking at all the city’s master plans, finding the elements of sustainability that already exist, and developing that into a usable framework. After that, it would make sense to pull in UM and other groups, Rampson said, like the Washtenaw Urban County. The Urban County is a consortium of local governments – including Ann Arbor – that receives federal funding for low-income neighborhoods, and could help address the social equity aspect of sustainability, she said.
Home Depot Grant: Next Steps
In a phone interview last week with The Chronicle, Naud said that city staff are still finalizing the application. He’s working with Rampson and Connie Pulcipher of the city’s systems planning unit, and they’ll be talking with representatives from the Home Depot Foundation on Dec. 9 to present a draft of their proposal. The city is already involved to some degree in the foundation’s sustainability efforts – Ann Arbor is among the cities profiled on the Sustainable Cities Initiative website, funded by the Home Depot Foundation.
Part of the grant proposal could include figuring out how to engage the community, Naud said, likely by developing a website to educate people about what’s already happening, to solicit ideas and to give people a voice who might not have the time or inclination to attend public meetings.
Naud, Rampson and Pulcipher will also be working with the city’s environmental commission in shaping the sustainability project, Naud said – he noted that it’s the only city commission in which the city code specifies sustainability as part of its mission. Under the section of city code that establishes the commission, among its powers and duties are:
(g) To advise the City Council and City Administrator on all matters related to sustainable development, clean production, and environmental technologies.
Meanwhile, there hasn’t been additional action taken as a result of the three-commission sustainability working session in April. In a recent email to The Chronicle, Steve Bean – chair of the environmental commission – said the next step could include drafting sustainability goals and getting feedback from members of all three commissions and those goals, and about how to proceed. That could happen sometime early next year.