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Greening the city

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.

Not only in Knoxville

Plan ET region

Plan ET region

Yesterday’s Knoxville News Sentinel reported on plans for installation of electric-vehicle charging stations at public sites (parks and parking garages) in the city of Knoxville. This is not only happening in Knoxville — we’re getting ten federally funded charging stations at public places here in Oak Ridge, too. Five sites will each get two car-charging units. If I remember the list correctly, we can look for them soon at the Library-Civic Center complex, the Haw Ridge trailhead, the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge, and the east- and west-end fire stations on Oak Ridge Turnpike. This will help define various Oak Ridge sites — especially Haw Ridge and the Children’s Museum — as good destinations for electric-car owners throughout the Knoxville metro area.

While it’s natural for Oak Ridgers like me to focus on our city and for the Knoxville paper to focus on its own backyard, I believe that we shouldn’t be thinking of our two cities in isolation. We are part of one metropolitan region that is increasingly interconnected — and our fortunes will rise or fall together. The economic development group Knoxville Oak Ridge Innovation Valley has produced an impressive list of rankings that indicate our strength as a region — number 1 in Green Jobs Growth according to the Brookings Institution, the number 4 High Tech Hub according to Business Facilities, number 5 for “Best Metro Value” according to Kiplinger’s, a number 8 ranking on CNN Money‘s “Fastest Growing Cities” list, and number 6 on the Forbes list of Best Metros for Jobs. Even though these rankings are sometimes described in regional media as relating to the “city of Knoxville”, these scores are based on statistics for the entire metropolitan area (usually the metropolitan statistical area of Knox, Anderson, Blount, Loudon, and Union counties), and Oak Ridge is a big part of the region’s successes.

This perspective has a lot to do with why I’m supportive of the Plan ET initiative. Although it is inevitable that we will continue to think about places like Knoxville, Farragut, Clinton, and Maryville as competitors, we need to think regionally and start to cooperate for our mutual benefit. This coming week I’ll be attending Plan ET working group meetings to discuss trends in the region, a draft vision for the region in the year 2040, and the next steps that will create some alternative scenarios for our future.


Time to catch my breath?

Lately I feel like the airport is my second home, but I may finally be getting a chance to catch my breath after my most recent trip, to the National League of Cities meeting in Phoenix. I returned home with my bags stuffed with handouts and new knowledge and ideas on topics including managing and using social media in local government, possible ways for Oak Ridge to implement the repair of sewer laterals that fail smoke tests (something that will soon be a big deal here) and help residents prepare for future problems with their laterals, ingredients for successful “green” initiatives (more difficult here than in some other regions of the country), how other cities house their community centers to serve youth and seniors, and “much much more.”

City Council meets Monday evening with a full agenda. I expect that many agenda items will be uncontroversial, but several will generate discussion, and there are a few items that I will either oppose or seek to amend:

1. Local Oversight Committee. I believe that regional cooperation is vital for dealing with matters like the challenges our region faces as the host of Department of Energy nuclear facilities, legacy contamination, and the radioactive waste industry that has come here because of DOE. However, I don’t like the proposal to discard the 20-year-old Local Oversight Committee and start all over again with a vague plan for a committee of regional mayors (ironically, the same type of group that set up the Local Oversight Committee in the first place).

The LOC was established to provide technical resources to help the region’s communities with the particular challenges of DOE environmental cleanup and waste management activities. Because these technical matters are outside the expertise and interest of most local governments, technical resources (funded from federal coffers) have been thought necessary to help governments and communities deal effectively with these challenges. The LOC employs a technically qualified professional executive director who works with the organization board of directors (nominally consisting of mayors and chairs of some technical advisory boards) and volunteers on the LOC Citizen Advisory Panel to stay abreast of current developments, determine how situations affect the region’s communities and local governments, and communicate on various matters to local, state, and federal entities and the public. Now several mayors (including Tom Beehan) want to scrap the LOC in favor of a new, apparently politically oriented, entity to be directed solely by mayors.

Whatever shortcomings the LOC has had in recent years are attributable in large part to a resounding lack of interest by the mayors who have nominally been members of the LOC board of directors but chose not to participate — and in several cases (notably, Knox County) did not even bother to designate alternates to serve on their behalf. With little participation from elected officials, it sometimes was difficult for the LOC to stay focused on local government priorities. The mayors’ demonstrated lack of interest in the organization and its functions is not a good omen for the success of their plan to trash the LOC and start all over again. (The mayors have not suddenly developed interest and expertise in technical matters.)

After hearing from citizens about the unique value of the LOC (largely at the September 9th special meeting of the LOC board), including being told by four former chairmen of the Oak Ridge Reservation Site Specific Advisory Board that the SSAB is not a substitute for the LOC, I foolishly thought the mayors recognized that the political damage they would suffer from trashing the LOC — including firing the various citizens who have volunteered their efforts and expertise as board alternates and advisory board members — outweighs the value of any money they could get out of that action. Foolish of me. Now Oak Ridge City Council and several regional county commissions are being asked to sign on to an “interlocal agreement” (effectively a contract) that gives little indication of the purpose and direction of the proposed new entity, beyond saying the mayors will be in charge.

The proposed interlocal agreement is said to be patterned after the charter for the Hanford Communities (see page 21 of this package),  considered by other local governments to be a successful model of regional cooperation among DOE communities, and one that is well-integrated with local government.  The fact that the Hanford Communities organization is well-integrated with local government could be explained in large part by the fact that it is financed  by membership dues from member governments, in contrast with the Oak Ridge LOC, which is funded with federal cleanup money. Accordingly, it makes sense that the agreement under which the Hanford group operates is structured as the charter for a membership organization, but it does not make sense to have copied those elements for the structure of the proposed East Tennessee entity. I also note that the Hanford agreement has many details regarding the purposes and functions of the organization that were not copied into the proposed interlocal agreement for East Tennessee.

I’d like to support continued regional cooperation, but I can’t endorse an “interlocal agreement” that contains little more substance that the statement that the mayors of several entities “desire to meet on a regular basis.”

2. “Not in Our City”. This is a package of ideas and initiatives that our city needs. Still, the proposed program of inspection of residential units before the utilities are turned on, which is a major element of this package, needs to be implemented very carefully to ensure that the city does not act “arbitrarily and capriciously” against the interest of any property owner.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development guidelines proposed to be used for this inspection program is long and detailed, and it includes a number of vague or subjective items.  Until the guidelines are tightened up to make them both unambiguous and easier to understand, I am not convinced that this new program is ready to implement, even on a trial basis (as staff proposes). I also have some reservations about the “sewer laterals” element of the inspection, which is a whole ‘nother story.

3. What is “Fast Food”? Staff is proposing a new definition for “fast food” in order to allow “fast casual” restaurants with drive-up service, but not “fast food” restaurants, in the Woodland Center Planned Unit Development. I’m all for the concept, but it appears to me that the staff’s proposed new definition — based largely on restaurant size —  would exclude some small non-fast restaurants (such as Homeland Cafe, Razzleberry’s, and Connie’s Natural Gourmet) by calling them “fast food,” while potentially allowing other businesses with drive-through operations that might not be kind to the adjacent residential neighborhood. I think this proposal should be vetted by the Planning Commission before Council votes on it at first reading, rather than after.  In the meantime, I will ask for more details on the proposed wording changes (the package provided to Council lacks some needed context) .


Climate Action Plan — it’s time to comment

The Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board’s long-awaited Climate Action Plan is available in draft form for public review — download it here. The plan describes recommended measures for reducing energy consumption (and thus emissions of greenhouse gases) by city government and by the community at large. I missed last Tuesday’s public meeting about it (I was out of town), but I’m definitely looking forward to hearing what people think of the recommendations. City Council is scheduled to receive the final plan in October.

I’ll be interested in receiving people’s comments, but people who want to affect the content of the final plan should send comments on the plan to Athanasia Senecal — her e-mail name is asenecal and the city e-mail domain is cortn.org.


YES to household energy efficiency, NO to imposters taking advantage of TVA program

It’s great news for local homeowners that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is promoting home energy efficiency through in-home energy evaluations and rebates for certain kinds of energy improvements. Details are on the TVA website (and there are also tax credits available for work done this year). I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that unscrupulous people are taking advantage of this, according to this message from TVA:

Recently, TVA was informed of a situation in which an individual falsely posed as a TVA energy evaluator with the In Home Energy Evaluation (IHEE) program pilot. The imposter gained access to the customer’s home but did no harm. In efforts to prevent this situation going forward, we are asking you notify your customers of this situation and communicate to them that TVA-certified evaluators will not visit homes without pre-scheduling evaluations. TVA is adding the following language to all versions of the IHEE fact sheet as well as the TVA website.

In-home evaluations are scheduled in advance at the request of a homeowner and performed by TVA-certified evaluators. Residents should report any uninvited persons claiming to represent TVA or the local power company to local authorities immediately.

Please share this information with your customers as soon as possible. If you have any questions or need my assistance, please let me know. Thank you for your continued participation and support.

Tom Irwin
Senior Power Utilization Engineer
TVA Comprehensive Services


What’s next now that the “Orange Route” is dead?

Map showing the proposed Knoxville Beltway in Anderson, Knox, and Loudon Counties, Tennnessee

"Orange Route" for the now-cancelled Knoxville Beltway

It’s true — as the Knoxville News Sentinel predicted Friday morning, TDOT killed the Knoxville Beltway project! This means it’s now up to the region to  find creative solutions to congestion on the highways — but it should mean that money that might have gone to the road project will now be available to help implement those solutions.

I’m pleased to see the Orange Route proposal come to an end, but I’m not real surprised. Last year, in a presentation on Knox metro transportation plans, this project was listed under the 2034 timeframe — about 25 years in the future. I figured then that it would never happen, particularly in view of society’s recognition that  to achieve energy independence and address “greenhouse” warming we need to greatly reduce our reliance on gasoline.

The bypass was supposed to relieve congestion on I-40 and I-75 by diverting some thru traffic — particularly on I-75  — around Knoxville. The trouble with that plan is that much of the traffic congestion on Knoxville’s interstates is due to local traffic, not long-distance travelers on the Interstate. I presume that’s one of the main reasons why the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s new analysis found that the beltway wouldn’t divert enough traffic to serve its purpose. Furthermore, there’s plenty of evidence that new highways in urban areas actually generate new traffic due to the growth (urban sprawl) they induce.

Now that the state isn’t planning a new road, I believe the region needs to push for things like more and better local transit, HOV lanes (or possibly express lanes for through traffic) on the Interstates, promotion of carpooling, more of those Intelligent Transportation Systems  (ITS) signs that give the travel time to various destinations, other ITS measures, and improvements to local roads so drivers will have more route choices. I hope the whole Knoxville region can work together to get the resources allocated to these kinds of changes — and to make them work once they are funded.

What does this mean for Oak Ridge, in particular? I’m not sure, but I think it would have been a mixed bag, probably with more minuses than pluses. On the minus side, being “outside the beltway” (to borrow a phrase from Washington, DC) is is a minus for local economies, as limited-access highways can form significant physical and psychological barriers to local travel. However, the Clinch River (which is far more attractive than a highway) already separates Oak Ridge from Knoxville in much that same way, so a new road might not have significantly reduced Oak Ridge’s access to the Knoxville market. The Orange Route  exit at the Pellissippi Parkway just beyond of Solway (see map) would have adversely affected Oak Ridge by forming a preferred location for retail business that is outside the city limits, yet very close enough to divert customers away from Oak Ridge (like moving Turkey Creek closer to Oak Ridge). Anderson County would gain an additional Interstate exit that would not really increase Oak Ridge’s access to the Interstate, but where new businesses could generate new tax revene for the county (a small part of whch would come to Oak Ridge). Perhaps most importantly, the Orange Route would have reduce driver interest in using Oak Ridge Turnpike as a de facto  bypass. Without the bypass, I guess I may have to laughingly agree with the jokesters who have suggested that the most important purpose of traffic enforcement cameras is ro prevent  people from using Oak Ridge as a bypass.


Not sudden unexplained acceleration, after all?

A couple of weeks ago I commented on plans for the “Oak Ridge Gran Prius” and its relation to Toyota safety issues. At this point, it appears that the Gran Prius event might not happen, due in part to nagging safety concerns.  Now, however, there’s an op-ed piece in the New York Times telling how many past instances of “sudden unexplained acceleration” were actually due to people pressing down (hard) on the accelerator pedal when they thought their foot was on the brake! Hmm…


A chicken coop at every house?

Sign at Peggy Hanrahans Realty Center promoting a chicken coop with every home sale
No, I don’t believe that everyone in Oak Ridge wants to keep chickens, but Peggy Hanrahan’s Realty Center seems to be open to the idea — their business sign is advertising a free chicken coop with every house sold…

This is in keeping with the goals of the Oak Ridgers who would like to keep backyard chickens — they are thinking in terms of pets that lay eggs, not full-scale poultry farming. Not everyone would want backyard chickens, but not everyone wants a pet dog, either. If Oak Ridge doesn’t make it explicitly legal to keep chickens — under certain rules designed to protect the neighborhood, I have a hunch that people will keep them anyway, but without rules.


Chickens or not?

Following up to my earlier post on chickens… Today’s Oak Ridger reports that the 5 Planning Commission members who attended last week’s work session were negative about the idea of allowing chickens in residential neighborhoods.  I wasn’t able to attend the meeting and I haven’t yet seen what staff presented to them. However,  I do know that there was no advance publicity of the meeting’s topic (unless you count this blog) so there may have been no interested citizens at the meeting,  and it’s apparent from the article that staff presented the idea in negative terms (saying it was  supported by only a “handful of people” and raising concerns about the workload for enforcement and licensing and permitting).

If chickens are going to come to Oak Ridge to roost or lay eggs, people with interest and knowledge of chicken-rearing are going to have to sit down for a two-way discussion with the planning commissioners and staff. The newspaper says the topic will be addressed by the full Planning Commission at its February 25th meeting (5:30 pm in the City courtroom); based on what I know of the subject and what I read in the newspaper reports, I think it’s premature for the Commission to take any final action on this.

Follow-up (written on Wednesday): Community Development staff provided me with a copy of the written material provided to the committee; it included copies of the text of a couple of e-mails I had received from citizens. Staff say that there were several interested citizens at the meeting. It appears that discussion at the meeting dealt mainly with broad concepts.


Saving energy and avoiding Toyota safety issues

One event planned for Earth Day 2010 in Oak Ridge is the “Oak Ridge Gran Prius.” This will be a rally event challenging participants to get the best gas mileage driving a Toyota Prius across town on a defined course — thus letting people (particularly public officials who make decisions on buying vehicles) find out what it’s like to drive a hybrid car. I think it’s a great idea, but lately whenever Toyotas come up in conversation, somebody mentions the safety recalls on various models. My household’s Toyota Prius isn’t subject to either the accelerator-pedal issue or the braking problem, but those recalls (not to mention the media attention they’ve gotten) are still troubling for just about anybody who drives any kind of Toyota — and is likely to discourage some people from adopting energy-saving hybrid auto technology.

One thing that’s been missing from the U.S. media is advice on what to do about these problems (other than taking the car to the dealer for a repair). The BBC website, however, has some good advice: How do you stop a car with a jammed accelerator? advises drivers to put on the brakes, shift the car into neutral (of course!) — and if those measures don’t work, switch off the ignition (but keep the key in place to avoid locking the steering wheel). We need more of that kind of common-sense practical advice…