You Asked, We Answered: Are Chatham officials planning to meet the demands of a changing climate, and if so, how?

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From solar power to energy-efficient buildings, from preserving the ecosystem to minimizing vehicle emissions, the climate change plan specific to Chatham County encompasses myriad initiatives. 

A reader asked us what was being done about climate change in the county. So, we looked at which initiatives have been in place, as well as the long-term goals of the county as population and tourism growth inevitably bring new people — and new developments — into Chatham. 

But first, some context. 

Problem solving climate change is not a new conversation happening among Chatham County officials and community organizations. 

In 2011, the county government commissioned a report on the state of the environment. The 100-plus page report tracked data on land resources, water, air quality and waste management, and it made environmental recommendations to educate policymakers and the public. 

Then, in September of 2015, the Chatham County Climate Change Committee was established to make environmental recommendations to the Board of Commissioners. 

A major focus of this group upon its creation was reducing greenhouse emissions, which poses unique concerns considering the average one-way commute for the county in 2016 was almost 30 minutes. 

Vehicle exhaust and gas-guzzling vehicles are some of the county’s talking points for future investment in electric vehicles and charging stations, for example. The county is even looking at maximizing the efficiency of waste truck routes, which have to span a county that is geographically large, rural in many areas and spread out.

Then, in 2016, a gas emissions inventory was released, which revealed that transportation was the highest emitter of greenhouse gas in the county for 2015. Another report followed, summarizing recommendations for forests and farmland in helping climate change. 

But Kevin Lindley, director of environmental quality, said most of the county’s efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change are enumerated in Plan Chatham. This plan was approved in 2017.

Lindley said this plan truly is comprehensive in that it addresses more than just environmental issues in moving the county’s development and health forward. While some national policies have rolled back eco-friendly practices – and some people question science’s conclusion that humans greatly impact the phenomenon – Chatham County wants to move forward to protect the natural landscape and implement green technology. 

“While it is not a climate change action plan, per se, it lays out goals to reduce the county’s carbon footprint and maintain a healthy county ecosystem while recognizing the importance of agriculture and smart economic development to the county’s fiscal health,” Lindley said. 

Lindley added that the Climate Change Advisory Committee, a body that is currently active in educating on and planning for environmental solutions, also developed a series of recommendations that mirror the goals of Plan Chatham. 

What’s already been done?

Lindley explained that a sustainable-facilities policy already implemented by the Board of Commissioners targets new county buildings in making them more energy efficient. 

The county installs newer, energy-efficient systems in buildings when they are either repaired or replaced. Water conservation is also getting attention with fixtures that limit the flow rate and tankless hot-water systems dispense as needed to avoid waste. 

When it comes to renewable energy, the county already procured national recognition in January for making solar power more accessible to homes and businesses. And of the state’s 100 counties, Chatham ranks 37 for solar energy generation, according to Lindley. 

In May, North Carolina as a whole jumped to second in the country for producing solar energy. 

Renewable energy, like solar, is a resource Lindley says the county aims to bolster. That also includes electric vehicles to reduce dependence on gasoline. 

The county currently owns one electric vehicle, but getting residents on board with driving chargeable vehicles could be difficult. Nearly 15 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, so purchasing new ‘green’ vehicles isn’t an immediately plausible option for many families. 

There are also local efforts by community organizers that are attuned to niche environmental issues. 

Jason Welsch, a member of Fearrington Green Scene, works with other residents in the area to reduce consumption of energy and water, as well as support proper recycling. 

“We share an interest and a concern for the environment in general,” said Welsch, 78. 

The groups numbers anywhere from 12 to 20 people, Welsch said. They organize a few events year-round to educate residents on eco-friendly practices and bring various areas of municipal government directly to neighborhoods to provide services like specialty waste disposal of pharmaceuticals.  

Welsch said the group also helps clean the Haw River in the spring and plant trees for an Arbor Day celebration. 

“[It’s] a gentle contribution to absorbing carbon, as well as just the aesthetics of it,” Welsch said. 

Welsch also said that one area of improvement is proper education of what can and cannot be recycled. He noted that people don’t have the same understanding of recyclable materials.

So, Welsch wants to update signage on collection receptacles to ensure recyclable waste is not being funneled to landfills.

What are the county’s goals for future climate change efforts?

Lindley says a few investigations into funding for electric vehicle charging stations are underway, in addition to a request for proposals to install solar panels on select county buildings. 

At the Climate Change Advisory Committee’s June meeting, the group discussed solar panel upgrades for non-residential buildings and energy efficiency strategies for low-income residents as some potential future projects. 

Long term, development ordinances may combine into a Unified Development Ordinance, which prioritizes sustainable community features like walkable and bikeable areas, mixed-use spaces and access to public transit. 

“Energy efficiency makes good business sense,” Lindley said. 

One such development, Chatham Park, includes “clean tech” like smart meters and car-charging ports. 

One of Lindley’s other goals for this year is to build a website with a sustainability portal to direct residents to the right resources to keep abreast of county initiatives. 

The Climate Change Advisory Committee’s next meeting will be on Sept. 26. 

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