Harrisonburg’s draft Environmental Action Plan goes public – minus a focus on renewable energy

By Harrison Horst, senior contributor

On Wednesday evening, several dozen people gathered downtown to get into the weeds of the city’s latest push to go green. It’s an effort that will be guided by an Environmental Action Plan (EAP), a sustainability roadmap being developed by city staff along with the city’s appointed Environmental Performance Standards Advisory Committee (EPSAC).

The event, held at City Hall, was an opportunity for community members to learn more about the EAP, which has just been released in draft form. To help educate the public and provide a venue for answering questions, city staff and EPSAC members stationed booths dedicated to each of the plan’s six focus areas: Buildings and Energy; Land Use and Green Space; Regional Food Systems; Sustainable Transportation; Waste Reduction and Recycling; and Water.

One aspect of the draft plan that’s attracting considerable attention from sustainability advocates, however, is something that it now lacks: a renewable energy focus area. When EPSAC presented the principles of the EAP to city council in October, the plan included renewable energy as a seventh focus area. That section of the plan called for an “orderly, timely, and economically fair transition to sustainable energy sources” and a target of 100% renewable energy by 2050. City council endorsed that early version of the plan, including the renewable energy goals, last fall.

That renewable energy focus area, however, was removed earlier this year at the request of city staff, according to an email provided to The Citizen. The reason given for the decision was that the city does not have authority over the Harrisonburg Electric Commission (HEC), the municipal utility that provides power to the city. (Solar panels and other site-specific renewable energy technology may be included under the Buildings and Energy focus area, the email said, but the EAP will not include a comprehensive review of the source of electricity distributed by HEC.)

“I think electricity is a huge aspect of the plan that was not included,” said Nidhi Vinod, the Renew Rocktown Coordinator who attended Wednesday’s event. “Cities are built on electricity, and [it’s] also one of the big greenhouse gas emitters. So I feel like that’s such an important thing to have as part of the plan.”

Members of Renew Rocktown, a local environmental advocacy coalition, handed out fliers at the open house with a list of prepared talking points, including a note about electricity generation. The flier pointed out that “electricity generation is a significant portion of greenhouse gas emissions by the City”  and called for the inclusion of a renewable energy goal.

At a meeting of EPSAC last week, concerns over the absence of a renewable energy section and other aspects of the draft plan led the committee to postpone a vote on endorsing it before the public comment period – something it had originally planned to do.

“We felt that we weren’t ready to formally endorse the EAP; however, neither did we want to go on record as not endorsing the plan because we appreciate and affirm the careful work that has gone into drafting the plan in its current form,” said EPSAC chair Deirdre Smeltzer, in an email to The Citizen.

“Some of us advocate for language that more clearly articulates a commitment to taking action in the immediate future,” she added.

Vinod likewise commented on the language of the document, saying, “Words like ‘consider’ create an ambiguity in the plan, but we want direct action, we want words that affirm this action.”

But Ritchie Vaughan, a city resident and local realtor, appreciated the open-endedness of the language, noting that committing strongly to actions without knowing their viability can be unhelpful.

“It’s important to ensure the viability and outcomes of a project before committing to one,” said Vaughan, in an email. “It would have been nice to already have some of the viability work done so that the plan could be ordered by a timeline or suggested order; there were a lot of far-reaching proposals that were suggested without any recommended order or operations.”

Vaughan also noted that many of the ideas presented might be tricky to accomplish without addressing complex city-level systems.

“A whole lot of the initiatives were interconnected and cannot be pursued individually – like transportation and green space and land use,” she said. “Transportation infrastructure does not exist in a vacuum – it’s related to our city’s layout and subdivisions.”

The public comment period, which began last week, will end on June 26, after which the comments will be discussed at EPSAC’s next meeting on July 31. Public comment forms are available online and can be returned by email or regular mail. According to Smeltzer, a tentative date of August 27 has been set for EPSAC’s next presentation to city council, presumably including the delivery of a finished plan.

Despite minor differences of opinion, the energy at the open house was primarily positive. Many in attendance seemed excited about the prospects of the nearly-finalized EAP.

“I feel very hopeful. Just yesterday, seeing the number of people that came in … I feel like there’s such an energy pushing this forward, and the city is so friendly and willing to accept this,” Vinod said. “I really see changes happening in the near future in terms of social justice and environmental justice.”

Editor’s note: This article has been edited to correct the ending date of the EAP public comment period and the date of the next EPSAC meeting.

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