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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.

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.


The next phase of the Turnpike (Hwy 95) widening

People are griping (for example, on the new Sustain Oak Ridge Google group) about the Hwy 95 widening projects (the ongoing one from Illinois Ave. to Westover Drive and the next phase from Westover Drive to the Hwy 58 interchange).  These are not City of Oak Ridge projects, but are Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) projects (when complaining about public issues, it’s useful to know which unit of government you have an issue with), and it’s clear that the city has little influence over the way TDOT designs and builds its road projects. However, there has been strong city support for completing both of these projects, as they have been on the books for a very long time and they will not only eliminate some hazards but will also result in extending new utility lines (such as water mains) to the west end of the city, including Rarity Oaks, K-25, and Rarity Ridge.

One thing I’m concerned right now is the design for the next phase. This is a high-priority “shovel-ready” economic stimulus project, based on TDOT design work that was completed 9 years ago, so work  is slated to start soon.  TDOT’s design for this segment calls for a 48-foot wide median and a wide cleared right of way adjacent to both sides of the highway, and extensive cutting and filling to create an elevated roadway — think of an Interstate highway or the Pellissippi Parkway to imagine what is being planned. The grassed median alone will be wider than the entire current roadway. There will be no more trees to buffer between the Southwood subdivision and the highway or between the cleared properties in the Horizon Center and the highway (someone I know said “all trees that you can see from the road will be gone”) and the brick entryway to the Westwood subdivision probably will be removed.

If people don’t like this (or other details, such as the bike lane on the shoulder), public officials (both city and state) need to hear from you. They’ve heard from me asking for the design to be scaled back (apparently I was the only one to write a letter to TDOT after the public hearing on the design back in 2000,  and I’ve communicated more recently to TDOT as a City Council member) and a few others, and the Oak Ridge Environmental Quality Advisory Board (EQAB) recommended that City Council encourage TDOT to change their design from a “rural” to an “urban” design, but it appears to me that we critics are not being taken seriously.  If others agree with us, they need to speak up. (Opportunties to speak to Council include “appearance of citizens” at tonight’s Council meeting at 7 pm and the City Council Night Out at the Civic Center Tuesday evening from 6 to 8 pm.)

Here is some “material” on the subject, starting with the “guts” of a message I sent to TDOT’s regional manager in March of this year:

The principal concern that I have (and that I have heard from other residents) is that the overall width of the proposed design, including a 48-ft median and very wide clear zone on both sides of the travel surface, does not appear to be necessary (it greatly exceeds what exists on the higher-traffic segment of Hwy 58 west of the interchange) and will result in excessive environmental impacts, unnecessary construction and maintenance costs, and long-term detriment to efforts to maintain a “human-scale” community design that fosters pedestrian travel and community cohesion.

Environmental impact concerns include:
(1) loss of forest, riparian areas, and probably wetlands in the corridor
(2) noise impacts in residential areas adjacent to the corridor that are currently buffered from the roadway by vegetation that would be lost
(3) increased impacts to water quality and aquatic habitat in East Fork Poplar Creek due to reduction of vegetative buffer, loss of shade, and increased stormwater runoff
(4) possible impacts to flood storage and routing in East Fork Poplar Creek
(5) loss of aesthetic qualities.

From a cost perspective, I think it is clear that a wider swath increases the costs of both construction and ongoing maintenance. Reducing the width of this project to make it no wider than the segments immediately to the east and west (that is, the Hwy 95 segment currently under construction and the Hwy 58 segment from the Hwy 95 interchange west to the Clinch River) should free up some funds for other uses, both now and in the future.

There has also been community concern about potential impacts to the “checking station” structures (listed on the National Register of Historic Places) on either side of the roadway west of Westover Lane and to the nearby cemetery, but I understand that these features would be protected under TDOT’s design. Additionally, I told you that residents of the Westwood subdivision (entered at Wisconsin Avenue) are concerned that the project would require removal of the brick “gate” structures at the entrance to the subdivision, and you explained that this is unavoidable.

I recognize that funding priority for this project depends on the availability of an existing design, but I also know that even a “final” design often requires many changes, and that it is far less costly and time consuming to change an engineering design than it is to modify a road once it has been built. I believe that the requested modifications to reduce overall project width could be made within the context of the overall design (and thus without jeopardizing the overall project package). Additionally, I find it frustrating that I and other citizens registered these same concerns (orally and in writing) when a public meeting was held on this project about 8 years ago, but we did not receive responses to our expressions of concern — and the design remained essentially unchanged. I hope that changes can be made now to improve this project while reducing its costs.

* Here’s the text of TDOT’s April 8th reply to me:

I forwarded your e-mail to the Department’s Headquarter Design Office for assistance in addressing your concerns regarding the improvement of State Route 95 from State Route 58 to near Westover Drive in Oak Ridge.

As you are aware, a corridor and design public hearing was conducted on September 21, 2000. A review of the public hearing comments was made on December 27, 2000. Information based on the transcript reveals the hearing was attending by twenty-one people with six people making comments to the court reporter, two making written comments and one letter. You provided the letter and a comment to the court reporter.

The project has an approved environmental document. The project is designed in accordance with the Department’s standards and guidelines for a four lane divided facility using the typical sections as proposed in the approved Advance Planning Report. Comments from the public hearing and local government official regarding the addition of bicycle lanes and turn lanes have been incorporated into the present design. The facility will provide a bicycle lane on the roadway shoulders in each direction.

The typical section utilizing the 48 foot median is the normal typical used for a four lane divided facility. The 48 foot median is provided to allow for separation of opposing vehicles and allows sufficient area at median openings for safe vehicle storage making left turns and u-turns. The clear zone for this roadway is normal for this type of facility and utilizes the roadway shoulder for bicycle lanes. The roadway ditch provides for drainage.

The section of State Route 95 from Westover Drive to State Route 62 was designed with a narrower typical section because the area was established more urban and densely developed. The design also avoids the historic guard towers “checking stations” located near Westover Drive.

The Department strives to meet local concerns in the design of roadway projects while following the standards and guidelines established for safety of the motoring public. As the project progresses into the construction phase, opportunities to
improve safety and enhance aesthetics will always be considered.

* I don’t have an electronic copy of EQAB’s final letter to the City Council, but this draft is pretty close to what the board sent:

EQAB has recently learned that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) will provide funds for the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) to begin construction of Phase 2 of the State Route 95 Highway Improvement Project. As you may know Phase 2 covers the area from the West Guard Tower near Westover Drive to the SR 95/58 interchange. Members of EQAB reviewed the plans for this project. As a result of our review we would like to share some observations and concerns about this project.

The design for Phase 2 is based on a standard TDOT rural section design. As proposed it will have a cross section similar to an interstate-class highway with two traffic lanes in each direction, wide shoulders to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians, and a 48-foot depressed median for drainage. This design will result in clearing as much as 250-350 feet of right-of-way prior to construction. We are concerned that this construction will result in the destruction of a large area of natural habitat . At a time when City Council has tasked EQAB with developing a sustainability plan to reduce the city’s carbon footprint and help Oak Ridge become more environmentally friendly, construction of such a roadway is viewed by our board to be wasteful of natural resources and does not set a very good example of our commitment to a more sustainable future. The cost of such the proposed Phase 2 project is also wasteful of monetary resources at a time when these resources are becoming far more scarce. One reason we believe Phase 2 is wasteful is that Phases 1 and 3, which Phase 2 is sandwiched between, are both significantly more narrow urban sections. A rural section situated between two urban sections has limited benefit to the overall traffic flow patterns in this area.

Between 30-90 additional acres of forest would be needlessly razed to accommodate the rural highway section versus the urban section. At ~$30K per acre for unimproved buildable land in the West End, the value of this lost land, assuming the area abutting the highway does become completely residential, would be between $1 million and $3 million. This would be an absolute loss, since the commercial value of a deep median is essentially zero. If some of the land along the highway became light commercial instead of residential, the lost value could exceed $6 million.

The carbon sequestration value of the lost standing timber would be roughly $120-360K.

The broad shoulders and deep median buy us absolutely nothing, cost the City quite a bit in lost land etc., and cost the State quite a bit more in construction expense as well.

The members of EQAB are of the opinion that the Phase 2 design is incompatible with the City’s land use plans for the west end of Oak Ridge. With the development of Rarity Oaks and Horizon Center this area will not remain rural for very much longer. The build out of Rarity Oaks will ultimately make much of the area adjacent to the south side of the right-of-way residential. Similarly, the planned development at Horizon Center and Parcel ED-6 will bring a mix of commercial, industrial, and various density residential developments to the northern areas. We believe consideration of these factors necessitates an urban design to ensure compatibility with the future use of this area. An urban design would also be more compatible with non-motorized human users (i.e., bicyclists and pedestrians).

The original public meeting for the Phase 2 project was held almost nine years ago in September 2000. A lot of things have changed in the intervening years; unfortunately the design for Phase 2 has not been altered to account for or safely accommodate these changes.

Although we realize this project is being pursued on an accelerated schedule required by the ARRA to secure funding, we believe these concerns warrant a reexamination of the application of a standard design that since it’s first proposal has been superceded by changing conditions on the west end of town. The members of EQAB believe it would be to the benefit of the city, its residents, and future growth to explore the possibility of altering the proposed design to the proven, existing urban design that is more compatible with current conditions in the city.

To accept this project because the money is there to buy an elephant when we only need a horse will not help our community’s effort to establish itself as a sustainable community.


The Community Forum for Shaping a Green Future – Part 2

The process used at the Saturday forum was based on the process followed to elicit community input to Chattanooga’s climate action plan, which had been published two days before the Oak Ridge forum. Jim Frierson of the Chattanooga Green Team spoke at the forum regarding Chattanooga’s experience, helping to set the stage for our discussions.

Group discussion at sustainability forum, led by Ruby Miller and recorded by Chuck Agle The heart of the forum was a set of six facilitated discussion groups focused on six different general topics. Attendees spent 15 minutes in each topical area, sharing their ideas on things that Oak Ridge possibly could do to reduce energy use or otherwise promote sustainability. Volunteers from the community served as facilitators, and ideas were recorded by EQAB members who volunteered to be scribes. It was clear that the interactions between people stimulated a lot of good thinking. Within about 2 hours, each topical area had a list of roughly 100 ideas. There was minimal discussion of the ideas — the purpose was to generate ideas, not to evaluate them. Evaluation (for example, of cost, feasibility, and potential reduction on greenhouse gas emissions) will come later.

After the small-group sessions, participants were asked to go around the room and give votes (in the form of stickers) to their favorite ideas. Because each person had only two votes and little time to scan the lists, I don’t think this part worked very well — there were far too many ideas for most people to be able to make a meaningful choice of just two “best” ones.

Discussion at the end of the Sustainable Oak Ridge workshopI heard a lot of positive feedback about the process. People enjoyed meeting and interacting with their fellow citizens — this was not a crowd in which everyone already knew everyone else, so people were seeing new faces and hearing new perspectives. I think people particularly appreciated that the request for their opinions was essentially open-ended, rather than being framed in a way that narrows the range of “acceptable” answers (and may not allow citizens to say what they really think). Several people said that this type of format should be used for other City efforts to involve the public in decision-making — such as planning for the Melton Lake waterfront and marina area.

People have been asking me about what ideas that were generated, and which were the most popular. I can’t answer those questions very well yet. The volunteer scribes are not finished typing up the lists of ideas they recorded. Here’s a sample of some of the ideas (and themes of groups of more specific ideas) that I recall:
* Give residents incentives or financial assistance to make their homes more energy efficient
* Provide public transit
* Make the city more bike-friendly and more pedestrian-friendly
* Encourage LEED certification for new development
* “Make lawns unfashionable”
* Restrict tree-cutting in new developments
* Hire a city urban forester
* Convert city vehicles to alternative fuels
* Promote the farmer’s market
* Reduce vehicle idling by modifying intersections to reduce waiting time
* Put photovoltaic solar panels on the roofs of schools and city buildings

All of the ideas need to be reported publicly soon, and there will be more opportunities for public input — as well as evaluating ideas to find the ones that make the most sense practically, economically, and to achieve environmental goals.


The Community Forum for Shaping a Green Future – Part 1

Athanasia Senecal describes results of Oak Ridge's greenhouse gas emissions inventory By most measures, Saturday’s forum “Greening Oak Ridge: A Community Forum for Shaping a Green Future” was a smashing success. There were about 100 people there, with a diverse variety of perspectives, and those people seemed to be thoroughly engaged in generating ideas about what Oak Ridge needs to do to make Oak Ridge a sustainable community for future generations.

Sustainability is often about the environment, but more broadly it means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This is no small challenge. The global financial collapse unfortunately means that we are now depending on those future generations to rescue our present economy. This forum was focused, however, on an environment-related sustainability challenge: sustaining the future environment and the future economy in the face of the impacts of the continuing buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — and taking action toward stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations and the climate.

On Friday, I heard the news that a group of 26 big companies and several environmental organizations calling themselves the U.S. Climate Action Partnership had declared their support for reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050. That’s a frighteningly ambitious goal facing us, our children, and our children’s children. It’s even more frightening to realize that climate experts say that the goal of 80 percent reduction from 2005 to 2050 is not nearly ambitious enough.

In May of last year, the City Council passed a resolution committing Oak Ridge to take action to address greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions, and to take a leadership role in addressing of climate change as an issue. The Environmental Quality Advisory Board was charged with advising the City in the development and implementation of milestones to accomplish these objectives.

As a first step in reducing Oak Ridge’s impact on the global atmosphere, EQAB needed to figure out how big that impact is and what we do that produces that impact. At the forum, Athanasia Senecal (photo), a UT intern working with the City, told about the inventory of greenhouse gas emissions from City government and from the community as a whole. The biggest source of City government emissions is (surprisingly) the water and wastewater sector — mostly pumping water uphill in our beautiful but hilly terrain. City government emissions are, however, only about 1 percent of the community total.

Part of the crowd at sustainability forumTo help define actions for the community to take, part of EQAB’s task is to make recommendations on city actions and policies to help ensure sustainability in the coming years and decades.
Saturday’s forum was held to gather input and ideas to feed into those policy recommendations. Participants were asked questions like:
* What steps do you think Oak Ridge should take to become a greener community?
* What should the city do to reduce our carbon footprint and build environmental sustainability into our infrastructure?

[To be continued]