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    Thursday, July 25, 2024

    New program to help towns become more sustainable

    Mashantucket — Mayor John McCormac of Woodbridge Township, N.J., says he never talked about the environment when he first ran for office in 2006.

    "That issue did not make any of my mailers. It didn't come up at any of my debates," McCormac told Connecticut town and city leaders who converged Tuesday at Foxwoods Resort Casino for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities' annual convention. "I never imagined what a hot-button issue it would become."

    McCormac said with the help of dedicated staff and residents and Sustainable Jersey — a nonprofit program that's poured more than $4 million into local projects across New Jersey the last eight years — his township is consistently recognized as the most environmentally friendly community in the state.

    "That matters to our residents," McCormac said. "It matters to our businesses who are proud to be in Woodbridge. It matters to businesses who are looking for a place to locate and choose Woodbridge."

    At Tuesday's convention, CCM announced the launch of a statewide program, Sustainable CT, modeled after New Jersey's efforts.

    Organizers say the program offers an online framework and potentially a financial boost to towns and cities looking to implement a range of economic, environmental and cultural improvements. The initiative will provide grant opportunities and logistical support to officials taking steps to improve infrastructure and transportation, protect the environment and create efficiencies in housing, planning and a host of public services.

    "It's a one-stop shop for sustainability measures," said Michelle Knapik, president of the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, one of the project's financial supporters.

    Municipal leaders at Tuesday's launch spoke of efforts already underway in their towns and cities to establish watershed protection, boost recycling and solar programs, cut municipal energy bills and redevelop dilapidated or contaminated sites.

    The program certifies municipalities that perform a range of actions, such as creating a natural resource and wildlife inventory; developing a municipal energy plan; or tracking and assessing historic resources.  Each action and benchmark, laid out on sustainablect.org, earns points and certification awarded by Eastern Connecticut State University's Institute for Sustainable Energy, which coordinated the program.

    Deborah Jones, Groton's assistant director of Planning, Zoning and Wetlands, served as co-chair of a planning working group, one of several statewide workgroups that developed the program over the last year.

    "At the beginning there were a gazillion ideas, but it got narrowed down to very specific actions that towns can take," Jones said. "A lot of towns are doing them right now."

    Groton already is making headway on a few action items, including streamlining regulations and a zoning code rewrite to make development easier and clearer for businesses and municipal leaders, Jones said.

    "We've also done a good deal of assessing our climate vulnerability," she said, noting Public Works has examined facilities "that might be susceptible to increased flooding and stronger storms."

    Abby Piersall, Waterford's planning director, said that town has taken many vital regulatory steps on watershed protection, land use and erosion sediment control. She noted Waterford's environmental planner, Maureen Fitzgerald, served on the program's ecological land and natural resources workgroup.

    The town also has benchmarked energy consumption at town buildings, Piersall added.

    "We'll be tracking and looking at opportunities," she said. "A lot of the steps will end up helping towns look at their spending and get some buy-in."

    Beyond marketable bragging rights that Sustainable CT certification might bring, McCormac noted New Jersey's program fostered innovative plans that translated into bottom-line benefits.

    "Not only did Sustainable Jersey not cost us any money, we have achieved budgetary savings as a result of many of the actions," McCormac said. "Every energy-efficient action, like an energy audit, new light fixtures, weather-proofing windows and more efficient fuel sources, goes right to the bottom line. We spend less on energy now ... and it's not just because of price fluctuations. Our energy usage is down overall because of Sustainable Jersey."

    McCormac added Sustainable Jersey sparked partnerships among towns and libraries, housing authorities and school districts, where children "are a natural ally to bring their parents around to a more environmentally friendly lifestyle."

    More than 200 municipal, business and nonprofit leaders partnered with Eastern Connecticut State University, the Connecticut Economic Resource Center and CCM over the last year to create Sustainable CT.

    The effort is funded by three Connecticut nonprofits: the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, Hampshire Foundation and Common Sense Fund.

    Sabina Shelby, president of the Hampshire Foundation, said her organization planned to make a pool of approximately $250,000 available for small grants to help towns and cities kickstart climate and energy-related projects.

    "Sometimes all that's needed is a small grant that gets that town going," she said.

    Following Tuesday's launch, CCM and the Institute for Sustainable Energy plan a host of regional launch events in January, including at Connecticut College in New London on Jan. 24 at 6:30 p.m.


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