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Too busy to blog?

Whatever I’ve been up to lately, it’s clear I haven’t been doing much blogging. So what have I been up to? Here’s a partial list.

  • EQAB is about to finalize the first report on Oak Ridge’s progress in implementing the climate action plan and meeting the greenhouse gas reduction goals that City Council adopted in 2009 and 2010. The city and the community are on track to meet the first greenhouse gas goals that we adopted for 2015. That’s good news, but the goals for 2015 were modest ones — baby steps toward what needs to be done over the longer term.
  • I’ve been fretting about events surrounding the May 6 county primary election in Anderson County. The way things used to be, our local newspaper would publish profiles of the competing candidates in local elections — so voters could see a factual  report on who was running (at a minimum, the paper would provide basic facts like name, address, age, and occupation). Apparently those days are over — it looks like our local newspaper is no longer attempting to provide election guides. (I hope I’m wrong on that — but since early voting is almost over, a guide published now would be almost too late.) It used to be that the League of Women Voters would hold campaign forums where people could hear all of the candidates in an impartial setting, but this year one of the county’s political parties decided to schedule its own “forum” the same evening as the LWV’s forum. It used to be that local candidates tried to deliver positive messages about themselves, rather than publishing attacks at their opponents, but this year we’ve even received attack ads from candidates for judgeships. All in all, I think it’s harder than ever for voters to make good, informed decisions about the election.
  • And I joined a volunteer crew that pulled up garlic mustard in the greenbelt behind the Garden Apartments (now known as the Rolling Hills Apartments). Garlic mustard is an introduced plant from Europe that’s an invasive weed in this area — it threatens to out-compete our woodland spring wildflowers. It’s not common around this areas, but there’s a population behind the Garden Apartments, in an area that has a pretty amazing collection of spring wildflowers. After several years of volunteer effort, we just might manage to eradicate this weed.
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A vote of confidence for the ORFD

citysealAt this evening’s City Council meeting, the Oak Ridge Fire Department just announced that the city has received an ISO rating of “2″. That may not mean a lot to people, but it’s good news for all of us. I’ve learned that ISO ratings of fire departments are an indication of a community’s fire protection effectiveness. A “1″ is the bet possible rating, but “1″s and “2″s are very rare, and a “4″ is generally considered to be the best rating that most communities can aspire to. Thus, a “2″ means we have unusually good fire protection. Also, because many insurance companies use the ISO ratings in setting their fire insurance rates, this “2″ rating is likely to save us money on our insurance! Hurray for the ORFD — and the public works department that maintains the infrastructure that helps make this happen.

Added March 4: Oak Ridge Today has more on the story at http://oakridgetoday.com/2014/03/04/new-iso-rating-orfd-among-best-nation/

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Traffic cameras in Oak Ridge — again

signschool One of the thorniest issues that City Council faced in my 5+ years is back. On Monday, Council decides whether to renew the contract with Redflex (possibly in new form), whether to cancel it, and (with or without cameras) whether to ask the state to let the city install a pedestrian-crossing stoplight in front of Oak Ridge High School (instead of continuing existing safety measures like crossing guards and traffic cameras — and to be paid for with traffic camera revenue).

It’s my impression that the majority of Oak Ridgers support the traffic cameras for their positive impact on traffic safety (something that can’t be proven from the available accident statistics, mostly because we don’t have enough accidents to make statistically significant comparisons). Back in 2008, I voted for the city ordinance that allows the use of traffic cameras in Oak Ridge. However, I voted against the contract with Redflex, largely because the plan to use cameras seemed to be more about cameras than about achieving safety goals — it wasn’t connected to engineering analysis or a program of alternative (non-enforcement) methods for improving driver behavior (such as better signs and traffic calming).  Now the city has a chance to re-evaluate the program and improve it for the future.

What should Council vote to do now?

Stop operating some cameras as “speed traps.” The biggest thing I learned from the camera data recently shared with Council and the public (finally, after nearly 5 years of camera operation and many requests) is that there is a solid factual basis for the complaints that I received as a Council member (mostly from out-of-towners) who claimed Oak Ridge was running a speed trap. Redflex data show that about 1.4% of the vehicles passing through a camera-equipped school zone during school-speed-limit hours get tickets, on average. For westbound traffic passing the high school, that goes up to 2.1% (about 1 in every 50 vehicles), and for westbound traffic on Robertsville Road passing Willowbrook School, it’s a whopping 3.9% (about 1 in every 25 vehicles). Those are the kinds of violation rates that people associate with speed traps. Almost one-quarter of the camera tickets issued are for school-zone speeding — the camera operations that function like speed traps. When one person in 25 or one person in 50 is breaking the speed limit and getting ticketed, and this happens day in and day out, I think it says that the speed limit might be unreasonable — or the city needs to be trying other methods to promote safety. I don’t know if this means reducing the number of tickets by reducing the duration of school speed limits (I’ve talked to quite a few people whose camera tickets came when no children were present — for example, 2o minutes after school started) or upping the enforcement threshold (from 6 miles over to 10 miles over, for example), or if it means something like adding more flashing lights in school zones to remind drivers that children are present.

Add a pedestrian crossing light in front of the high school — thus eliminating or reducing the need for crossing guards, traffic cameras, and/or the school-zone speed limit. A pedestrian light is a feasible and affordable way to resolve the longstanding problem of kids crossing Oak Ridge Turnpike at that location — and it seems to me that a pedestrian light could eliminate the need for those other measures (after a phase-in period for people to get used to the new arrangements). I asked for this for several years (ever since city staff outlined a plan for it), and I was disappointed when city staff shelved the idea (largely because of national guidelines that said school speed zones and crossing guards are the preferred means for protecting school kids).  Council should support this now.

To be continued…

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Coyotes again — or possibly coywolves

Wikimedia-Coyote2008Oak Ridgers have coyotes on their minds again.

The last time this animal was a hot topic was 2006-2007. The city Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB — I was chairman then and I’m a board member again now) had long discussions of coyote sightings, disappearances of pet cats, etc. We learned that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), not city animal control, has jurisdiction over wild critters like coyotes. EQAB members studied up on the biology of coyotes and their management. We concluded that these animals are here to stay, and that the best way for the City to deal with them would be to help residents get good advice on coexisting with these animals.

It doesn’t look like very much has changed since 2007. The only new wrinkle is the information, based on scientific research in the northeastern U.S., that the coyotes in the eastern states may be “coywolves” — the result of crossbreeding between coyotes and eastern coyotes. (Read all about it at easterncoyoteresearch.com.) Also, now we have an Oak Ridge coyote tracking page on Facebook.
February 5, 2014 update: Warren Webb has supplied the information, from the Chattanooga Nature Center, that genetic research has found that our coyotes have less wolf in them than coyotes in the northeast: “Midwestern and Southeastern coyotes were genetically 90% coyotes, with an average 7.5% dog and 2.5% wolf.” In the northeast, they were “82% coyote, 9% dog, and 9% wolf.”

Back in 2007, EQAB member Liyuan Liang drafted an informational article on coyotes and how to live around them. Her article was submitted to the Oak Ridger as an EQAB contribution and published on May 21, 2007.  I found a slightly earlier draft of that article in my files, plus an information piece produced in 2008 by the Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) wildlife management staff, and I’ve pulled out some excerpts that I think are just as good to read in 2014 as they were in 2007 and 2008:

When did coyotes show up in Oak Ridge?

From ORNL: Historically known as an animal of the wild-west, the adaptable coyote has expanded its range into eastern North America while other carnivore populations (e.g. , wolves) have declined. Coyotes are now found in every corner of the United States, and they shift their behaviors to fit new habitats.

The first coyote probably crossed the Mississippi River into Tennessee around 1965. On the Oak Ridge Reservation (ORR) the first reported sighting of a coyote was in 1978, and the first coyote road kill happened in 1984. That same year, a pair of coyotes were observed raising a litter of pups on the east end of the reservation. In 1987 a pair of coyotes were trapped on the ORR and equipped with radio collars. They were radio-tracked for nine weeks during which time they ranged over an almost 4-square mile area. In 1990 ORNL researchers estimated that approximately 12 to 16 coyotes existed on the reservation. … Using known population densities from studies in other areas of the country, it is estimated that the reservation could potentially support as many as 50 or more coyotes.

Why are coyotes here now, when we didn’t have them before?

From the EQAB article: People unwittingly helped coyotes flourish when they exterminated most of the wolves in the United States. Coyotes became top dog, filling the wolf’s ecological niche. Deforestation and agriculture opened up previously dense tracts of forest, and human settlements, with their garbage, vegetable gardens, compost piles and domestic pets, provided food.

Describe the coyote’s “lifestyle” and what they eat.

A typical group of coyotes consists of a breeding pair and their offspring. The family group is largest in the summer when the pups, parents, and non-breeding adults are together at their den. Coyotes den in a variety of places, including brush-covered slopes, steep banks, rock ledges, caves, thickets, and hollow logs. Dens of other animals (such as groundhogs or foxes) are frequently used. In urban areas dens may include storm drains; culverts; holes in vacant lots, parks, and golf courses; and under storage sheds or porches.

Coyotes breed during January through March and typically produce five to six pups 60 to 63 days later. The entire family unit, including the mother, father, and other non-breeding family members, helps raise the young by providing food. Young coyotes begin dispersing in October and may travel up to 100 miles from their birthplace.

Coyotes are active mainly during the nighttime, but they can be moving at any time during the day.  Most sightings of coyotes occur during the hours close to sunrise and sunset.

They communicate through a series of yips, barks, and howls. A common call of the coyote is two short barks followed by a long wavering yodel known as the howl.

Adult males have large territories (15-25 square miles) in which they roam; adult females occupy areas of six to ten square miles. The availability of food affects territory size. Contrary to popular belief, coyotes do not hunt in packs. They are relatively solitary hunters, but they may hunt in groups when food is plentiful. They may also form packs to defend territories.

The coyote will eat almost anything, including rodents, rabbits, muskrats, groundhogs, squirrels, skunks, raccoons, songbirds, insects, watermelons, apples, and persimmons. They prefer fresh kills but will eat carrion. Recent studies have also shown that coyotes eat Canada goose eggs, goslings, and occasionally adults. Coyotes may take as many as 70 to 80 percent of the fawns of urban deer. Unfortunately, in urban areas their diet may also include garbage, pet food, cats, and small dogs.

When we see coyotes in neighborhood streets and yards, in the daytime, does that mean they are desperate for food, and dangerous?

In urban areas where coyotes aren’t hunted or trapped, they may lose their fear of humans. If they associate people with an easy and dependable source for food, they can become very bold. They will come up to the door of a house if food is regularly present. Coyote attacks are, however, extremely rare in contrast to the 4.7 million dog bites recorded in the United States each year. A person is millions of times more likely to get attacked by the family dog than by a coyote.

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to get rid of Oak Ridge’s coyotes by capturing them and killing them?

Eliminating individual coyotes doesn’t control their population. Remember that they produce litters of 5 or 6 pups. They also produce more young when their populations are low. This makes it very difficult to reduce coyote numbers. Scientists have determined that it would require removing nearly 70 percent of the population every year to maintain a sustained population reduction.

If we can’t rid of them, what we do to reduce the problems coyotes cause for our families and our pets?

* Do not feed coyotes!
* Eliminate sources of water. Water attracts rodents, birds, and snakes that coyotes feed on.
* Position bird feeders  so that coyotes can’t get the feed.  Coyotes are attracted by bread, table scraps, and even seed.  They may also be attracted by birds and rodents that come to the feeders.
* Do not discard edible garbage where coyotes can get to it.
* Secure garbage containers and eliminate garbage odors.
* Place trash cans out on pickup day. Putting them out the night before allows coyotes to scavenge under cover of darkness.
* Do not leave barbeque grills outside and uncovered. Food smells from the grill will attract coyotes.
* Feed pets indoors whenever possible.  Pick up any leftovers if feeding outdoors.  Store pet and livestock feed where it is inaccessible to wildlife.
* Trim and clear, near ground level, any shrubbery that provides hiding cover for coyotes or prey.
* Fencing your yard could deter coyotes.  The fence should be at least 6 feet high with the bottom extending at least 6 inches below ground level for best results.
* Don’t leave small children unattended outside if coyotes have been frequenting the area.
* Don’t allow pets to run free.  Keep them safely confined and provide secure nighttime housing for them.  Walk your dog on a leash and accompany your pet outside, especially at night.  Provide secure shelters for poultry, rabbits, and other vulnerable animals.
* Discourage coyotes from frequenting your area.  If you start seeing coyotes around your home or property, chase them away by shouting, making loud noises or throwing rocks.

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PetSafe Big Turtle Dog Park is open

PetSafe Big Turtle Dog Park dedicationA nice event on Monday — the dedication of the PetSafe Big Turtle Dog Park at Big Turtle Park in west Oak Ridge.

Dog owners who have been impatient for a local dog park are being rewarded for their wait, as this is a premier-quality dog park. Radio Systems Corporation (PetSafe) gave the city $100,000 for development of a really nice dog park, and the layout and design have been informed by the “lessons learned” in other communities that opened dog parks earlier.

I feel I can take a bit of credit for this project, because I initiated the effort (as a Council member) to get City Council to pass a resolution allowing Oak Ridge to pursue a PetSafe grant through an online grants competition that was being conducted on Facebook. The city didn’t win that competition, but the staff was able to use that resolution as authorization when an opportunity arose with PetSafe, which has its headquarters in west Knoxville.

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Mall site TIF is a partnership to achieve community goals

cityseal This is a letter to the editor that I submitted to The Oak Ridge Observer on Tuesday. The editorial it responds to (expressing support for plans for mall redevelopment and tax increment financing to help pay for it) isn’t online, but the free paper is still on newsstands:

To the editor:

I thoroughly agree with the headline of your editorial of October 31, which declared “We vote ‘Yes!’” for the mall redevelopment plan and the proposal for tax incremental financing (TIF) to help pay for it. This is an extremely important project to revitalize Oak Ridge’s commercial core – something that has been needed for years. The TIF mechanism is a good way for the city and county to help the project financially without borrowing money or putting public assets at risk. The entire community should vote “Yes!”

I can’t agree, however, with your description of the TIF as a “discount” or an “incentive.” The TIF is not about enticing businesses to build stores in Oak Ridge. (Retailers should want to be here because they can make money selling products and services to local consumers. Not only do Oak Ridgers clamor for more retail, but we have some attractive demographics – like median household income 21 percent above the state average.)

This TIF isn’t about “discounting” Oak Ridge to attract business. It’s about local government leveraging its resources (specifically, the ability to collect property tax) to enable a private developer to help the city accomplish the critically important public objective of revitalizing our city’s commercial core (the mall site). It’s possible that an investor could have bought the mall site and reused it without the help of a TIF, but the community wouldn’t be happy with the kinds of uses that might possibly be commercially viable without the extra help. This proposed TIF starts a public-private partnership aimed at achieving our community’s goals for the mall site as well as the developer’s business goals. Here’s hoping it succeeds for both sides of the partnership!

Ellen Smith

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Good news about our schools, but not in the Knoxville newspaper

Still photo of the animated sign display in front of Oak Ridge High School It’s happened several times lately. The Knoxville News Sentinel runs a story about some sort of statistics from area school districts, covering Knox County, Anderson County, Blount County, Maryville, Lenoir City, Loudon County, Sevier County, Claiborne County, etc. — but where’s Oak Ridge? Today’s story is on bullying.

Oak Ridge data are included in the state report that’s the basis for the story, so I can’t help but wonder if the newspaper’s education reporters are unaware that Oak Ridge has its own school system, separate from the county.

I looked at the state report because I was curious about the statistics for Oak Ridge Schools — particularly after recent allegations of rampant discipline problems in the schools. The report says our schools had 14 reports of bullying incidents in 2012-13. Five of the 14 cases were reported as “indicating bully occurred” based on investigation (the News Sentinel describes these as “confirmed” cases), and 5 cases (probably all 5 of the confirmed cases) involved “sex or gender discrimination.” There were no cases involving “race, color or national origin,” disability, or “the use of electronic technology.”

The Oak Ridge numbers are way below the 182 reported bullying cases (all of which were confirmed) in Knox County or the 150 reported cases in Lenoir City (71 confirmed) or the 129 reported cases (53 confirmed) in Anderson County.

Maybe the reporters didn’t find Oak Ridge’s statistics interesting enough to report because there were so few bullying incidents. Good-news stories about the absence of problems don’t sell newspapers. The story they didn’t print is good news.

Based on my experience as a parent — and before that as a kid –  Oak Ridge’s numbers seem unrealistically low (maybe our schools don’t use the same definition of “bullying” as some of those other school districts). However, I’m pleased (and not surprised) by this indication that our schools are generally orderly and our students are mostly well-behaved. (This is not a school system that’s out of control.) Too bad that the readers of the News Sentinel aren’t reading this good news.

Added at noon on October 27 following discussion on Facebook:

There is no question that different districts are using different definitions of “bullying” and what it takes to confirm a case. For example, is a physical altercation in the schoolyard between two boys, followed by a verbal threat of “I’m gonna kill you” an incident of bullying (I think it probably is) or just a case of “boys being boys” (the way school authorities have been known to interpret this kind of situation)?

In this area, Maryville and Union County both claim zero reported cases of bullying — it seems highly unlikely that nobody reported a bullying incident in an entire school year. Considering that bullying is often a case of “he said, she said” (or “she said, she said”, etc.), it also seems unlikely that Knox County didn’t have any bullying reports that school officials didn’t confirm.

Statewide, my calculations indicate that there were 0.008 bullying reports per enrolled student. Anderson County, Lenoir City, Roane County, and Sevier County statistics show higher rates than that state average (Lenoir City is highest of this group, at 0.068 reported cases per student). Alcoa, Blount County, Clinton, Knox County, Loudon County, Morgan County, and Oak Ridge report rates below the state average. Oak Ridge and Knox County both had about 0.003 reports per student.

Note: In case you care, the enrollment numbers I used in those calculations were “average daily membership” numbers for the 2011-2012 school year — the most recent compilation I found.

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Yes, Oak Ridge still has public transportation

citysealOne action at Monday night’s City Council meeting was approval of a new contract with the East Tennessee Human Resources Agency (ETHRA) to operate the city’s demand-responsive van transit system. The one-way fare will rise to $2, but otherwise the service is what I described here back in March. During the meeting, when several Council members asked staff how the public can find out about the Oak Ridge Transit service, I didn’t remember that I had blogged about this problem. (I did remember that I had talked with city staff about the need to make the information more available, but apparently my comments weren’t heeded.)

Just as I discovered back in March, discussion at the Council meeting confirmed that it’s not easy to find out about this service. Oak Ridge Transit can’t be found on the web. The local phone number to call for service rings to ETHRA — that could be confusing because ETHRA also runs a separate 16-county rural paratransit service that has different policies and higher prices. At Monday night’s meeting, city and ETHRA staff said they would do something to make information more accessible. I hope they follow through on that promise, because I know that some people who need this service aren’t finding out about it.

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No more competing festivals in Oak Ridge in June?

20110618114917There’s good news for everyone who has been saying they hope the Lavender Festival and Secret City Festival will be held on different weekends in the future (as happened this year) instead of competing on the same days (as happened for most of the Secret City Festival’s history). In 2014, the Secret City Festival will be on June 13 and 14, and the Lavender Festival will be the following Saturday, June 21, in Jackson Square.

Actually, this is good news for the whole community — more people will participate in more festival activities, vendors will have more opportunities to sell their wares, volunteers won’t have to try to be two places at once, etc., etc.

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Where black bears come from

Black bear sightings are almost getting to be routine around here. This cartoon is topical. (It’s been shared on Facebook — wish I could tell where it originally came from.) Update: Thanks to Linda Mann for finding the source: This is by Adrian Raeside and was published on his website at http://raesidecartoon.com/dbtest/images/1/2961.gif

eekabearcomic

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