In just the last two years municipalities in New Jersey have started going 'green' -- from buying hybrid cars for the city fleet to constructing public buildings with high energy efficiency standards. "None of this is really all that hard," according to Highland Park mayor Meryl Frank. "And it's only getting easier as more towns get on board."
A global change at the local level
BY CARMEN JURI AND BRAD PARKS
There are those in the environmental movement who measure progress in greenhouse gas emissions or pesticide use.
Meryl Frank measures it in empty seats.
She's the mayor of Highland Park, a small borough in Middlesex County, and for the past four years she has given a workshop at the annual New Jersey League of Municipalities Conference about the things towns can do to go green.
The first year, it attracted about 12 people -- mostly environmental advocates looking for someone to lobby. Then next year it was 30 people, including a few council members showed up. Then it was 40, and she started seeing fellow mayors.
This past year?
"The seats were full," Frank said. "When we first started doing this, we were looked at as a bunch of kooky tree-huggers. Now we're being looked at as forward thinking."
At the next conference in November, she'll be giving two seminars. In the meantime, she fields daily phone calls from mayors looking to implement environmentally friendly practices in their towns. All of which have led Frank and others like her to reach a conclusion: For New Jersey's municipal governments, it's suddenly hip to be green.
They're buying hybrid cars. They're using biodegradable cleaning products. They're constructing buildings to high energy efficiency standards. Things that were once the province of the Birkenstock- wearing crowd have crossed over into the wingtips and sensible pumps community.
"It's certainly on the minds of taxpayers and citizens, and it's on the minds of our elected officials as well," said William Dressel, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities. "It's become the hot-button issue."
The factors pushing the public sector to go green are much the same as the ones motivating private citizens -- arm-and-a-leg gasoline prices, soaring electricity costs, global warming scenarios that put most of the Jersey shore underwater and so on.
"Between Hurricane Katrina, Al Gore's movie and realizations about global warming, there's been a great sea change in public opinion on sustainability," said Randall Solomon, executive director of the New Jersey [Sustainable State Institute], an independent institute hosted jointly by Rutgers University and New Jersey Institute of Technology. "What you're seeing in New Jersey is a lot of mayors responding to that new reality."
At a special forum sponsored by the League of Municipalities in March, 90 of the state's 566 municipalities sent representatives. More than 70 towns have signed up to become a part of the Mayor's Committee for a Green Future, a group that is currently developing a best-practices guide that towns around the state can quickly adopt.
In the meantime, Frank, who founded that committee along with Maplewood Mayor Fred Profeta, encourages municipalities to "pick the low-hanging fruit" by starting with a few simple measures.
They're things like purchasing environmentally friendly products, which includes everything from compact fluorescent light bulbs to recycled paper; planting trees, which can be covered by grants from the state's "Cool Cities" program; replacing aging fleet vehicles with hybrid cars, which can also be subsidized by grants; passing anti- idling ordinances, which forbid cars from staying parked with their engines running for more than three minutes; or insisting developers build sidewalks, which encourages citizens to walk places they might ordinarily drive.
"None of this is really all that hard," Frank said. "And it's only getting easier as more towns get on board."
And they are getting on board in a hurry.
Edison, Woodbridge and Old Bridge -- to name just a few -- have recently announced plans to buy hybrid vehicles. Municipal councils in Plainfield and Cranford have recently passed pro-green initiatives. Millburn is working on a zoning ordinance to require new development in town to be built to high environmental standards.
A dozen towns around the state -- from Bernardsville to Mount Olive to Summit to Green Brook -- have joined the Rutgers Purchas ing Cooperative, which extends the bulk-purchasing power of Rutgers University to municipalities and school districts, saving them up to 25 percent on green-friendly products.
West Orange has rolled out its 2007 Energy Diet, a plan to knock down energy use by 20 percent.
Livingston has a multitude of new efforts -- including planting trees, developing a greenway for pedestrians and bikers, and building its new high school to high environmental standards.
"We're trying to take advantage of all the enthusiasm and energy people have for this issue and add it up so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," said Ar lene Johnson, a Livingston councilwoman. "I want Livingston to be known as a green community."
So do a lot of other towns, to the point where there are several contenders trying to stake their claim as New Jersey's greenest place.
Maplewood is building a police station that will be certified by the U.S. Green Building Council as the state's first fully green public building.
West Windsor has developed an entire Green Master Plan to go along with its conventional town development plan.
Montclair's claim to lasting fame is starting the state's first mandated recycling program in 1978. And the township continues that tradition in numerous ways, whether it's creating the position of environmental coordinator, replac ing its stoplights with high efficiency LED bulbs, or fueling parking enforcement vehicles with liquid natural gas.
Ocean City, Belmar, Princeton, and Trenton have all tried to take the lead as well.
"Green is in," said Jennifer Senick, executive director of the Rutgers Green Building Center. "Green is hip. Green is where people want to be politically."
Senick is currently doing research to show it also makes more sense economically, though in some ways that requires re-education for public officials accustomed to more conventional budgeting.
Many green technologies re quire greater up-front costs but save money in the long run. A new city hall constructed under the standards set by [the U.S. Green Building Council's, known as] LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) -- a nationally accepted benchmark for green buildings -- will cost 5 percent to 10 percent more to build, but save 25 percent to 50 percent on energy costs long term. Or there are hybrid cars, which cost several thousand more to purchase but can save more than $10,000 in gas over a 100,000-mile lifespan.
"A lot of this requires different thinking than what municipalities are used to," Senick said. "It's not just about surviving from budget to budget. It's about thinking long- term."