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Building a Sustainable Garden State, One Community at a Time

Galloway Township Community Garden
Galloway Township developed its community garden as part of a statewide sustainability initiative.

Sustainable Jersey isn't looking to save the planet, just a small corner of it -- at least for now.

The nonpartisan nonprofit, according to its website, "is a certification program for New Jersey municipalities that want to go green, save money and take steps to sustain their quality of life over the long term."

Participating towns and cities earn points toward certification for accomplishing a variety of goals -- priority and mandatory "actions" -- that increase their sustainability. These could include performing an energy audit on a municipal building (20 points); inventorying and upgrading the energy efficiency of those buildings (50 points); and establishing and enforcing an anti-idling mandate (10 points).

There are two levels of certification: bronze (150 points ) and silver (350 points). A gold program is in the works.

Sustainable Jersey has just certified 52 more bronze municipalities, bringing the total for that category to 117. Twenty towns have earned silver certification. A total of 399 towns are participating in the program, representing about half the state’s municipalities and nearly three-quarters of its population. (An interactive map on the program's website makes it clear just how dense its coverage is.)

The program’s success is based in part on cash-strapped municipalities saving money on expenditures like energy bills or landfill fees, but is really based on a growing recognition that community action can play a key role in creating a more sustainable world for future generations, participants said.

“For the most part, people are looking at ways to do the right thing for the environment,” said Dominikija Prostak, head of the “Green Team” – a panel that steers sustainable policy – in Frenchtown, which received a bronze certification at an awards ceremony in Atlantic City on November 19.

Grants are often available from public and private groups to pay for work like energy audits. Funders include Sustainable Jersey itself which this year supported local programs with grants of $2,000 to $25,000, totaling $600,000. Sources of other grants, loans, and tax credits are listed on the organization’s website.

Sustainable Jersey makes it clear that sustainability is also about issues like health and wellness, diversity and social inclusion, and economic development.

“When we talk about sustainability, we talk about people, prosperity and planet,” said co-founder Donna Drewes. “It’s not just environmental issues.”

Towns don’t have to pay Sustainable Jersey to participate, but signing on requires a significant investment of citizens’ time and effort to meet rigorous sustainability standards that are set by a task force of state agencies, nonprofits, universities, and local officials.

Any municipality seeking certification is required first to pass a resolution stating its intent to embark on the program. It must also designate a liaison person; complete an online registration; select the actions that will earn their certification, and create a Green Team to manage the process.

Participating communities can choose from 16 categories of action, from animals in the community to green design to sustainability planning, all explained in detail on the organization’s website.

Those interested in climate mitigation and adaptation, for example, can opt to create a community carbon footprint, for which they may be able to obtain funding, and which will earn them 10 points.

Or they can build a community garden, a project that Sustainable Jersey says is likely to take six to nine months to develop and cost between $1,500 and $15,000 but will earn just 10 points towards the 150 that are required for bronze certification.

In a sign of the rigorous nature of the certification requirements, towns are warned that a community garden project will also require the designation of a responsible person; a team to do the work, and money to pay for insurance, tools, and possibly the salary of a part-time gardener.

Those interested in transportation issues may decide to create a “complete streets” program, worth 20 points, which recognizes pedestrians and bicyclists as legitimate road users as well as cars.

In Frenchtown, actions included conducting an energy audit on its public buildings -- the borough hall and police headquarters -- which resulted in conversion from oil heat to natural gas, a lighting upgrade, and the installation of programmable thermostats.

Seventy percent of the audit’s cost was paid for by the http://www.state.nj.us/bpuNew Jersey Board of Public Utilities, ,while the remainder came from state and municipal funds. The resulting improvements were paid for in part by federal funding of $20,000.

The rewards of the energy audit came in the form of fuel bills which more than halved to $4,000 a year because of conversion to natural gas, as well as 50 points toward certification, or almost a quarter of the town’s 170-point total.

To earn 10 more points, the green team built a community garden on half an acre of land that had been purchased by the Federal Emergency Management Agency after the lot had been repeatedly flooded by the Delaware River.

In a project spearheaded by the local Lions Club, the land was cleared and fenced, all by local volunteers who also built raised beds and wooden walkways out of pallets. In-kind donations came from a local farmer who tilled the land and donated fence posts, and from local businesses including Lowes, Home Depot, and Ocean Spray. Local businesses have donated food waste for composting while the municipal court has used the garden for community-service projects.

For another 10 points, the community held a green fair which promoted a host of sustainable practices including waste reduction, line-drying of laundry, and collecting rain water in barrels. Vendors at the event in September 2012 were barred from serving food in Styrofoam containers.

The Hunterdon County community of some 1,400 people has united around the sustainability program, which has become more than just a means of saving money, said Mayor Warren Cooper.

“Something magical happens in this Sustainable Jersey effort,” Cooper said. “We’ve incorporated the goal of being a sustainable community into our self-concept.”

Cooper argued that the local program does not reflect the efforts of a small cadre of eco-zealots but has engaged the whole community, which he described as a rural blue-collar town with a diverse socioeconomic profile. “If we can do it, anybody can do it,” he said.

Now that it has the buy-in of many municipalities, Sustainable Jersey is extending its reach to school systems. In a program due to be launched in fall 2014, the group is creating a code of best practices and sustainability metrics for schools. When implemented, the program will provide specific measures that schools can take to go green; they will be encouraged to use any cost savings from measures such as reduced energy use to improve educational programs.

The schools program will be an opportunity to combine different aspects of sustainability such as health and environmentalism, Drewes said. For example, an effort to stop parents idling their cars while picking up children from school could improve air quality, reduce childhood asthma and fuel consumption, and lower carbon emissions, she said.

“When the municipal program had such an impact, schools said they wanted to get in on this,” said Drewes. “The certification model is a way for us to celebrate this and help move schools and municipal governments forward.”

The schools program will raise students’ and teachers’ awareness of green issues while saving money for school districts, said Dr. Lawrence Feinsod, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“We believe that board members need to be trained in the many benefits of sustainability and green technology so that schools can be operated more efficiently, and the money saved can be put back into instruction,” he said in a statement.

Among current participants, some townships are motivated to out-green others, said Randall Solomon, the group’s other codirector.

“There’s a virtuous competition,” he said. “Municipalities want to one-up their neighbors.”

Solomon cited his own community of Highland Park which raised its sustainability standard to silver this year after seeing nearby http://www.twp.woodbridge.nj.usWoodbridge attaining the higher level. Highland Park earned the higher certification with 355 points this year but remains well behind Woodbridge which, with 870 points, has by far the highest sustainability rating in the state.

Woodbridge’s latest green projects include a 30 percent reduction in the miles traveled by trash trucks; conversion of salt-spreading trucks from gasoline to electric; and the purchase of 12 gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles for its municipal fleet. It also purchases recycled paper, green cleaning products, and energy-efficient appliances.

Communities are increasingly concerned with presenting themselves as environmentally conscious, just as politicians are aware of the vote-getting potential of green credentials, Solomon argued.

“Green branding is important to the image of a town,” he said. “There are very few people who have a negative association with a place that pursues sustainable policies.”

More tangibly, people are motivated by simply saving money by using less energy and less water while generating less waste, all areas that are low-hanging fruit for local governments struggling to balance tight budgets, Solomon said.

“A lot of these things are just stingy government,” he said.

Despite the green zeal of towns like Woodbridge and Frenchtown, their current ratings don’t show that they are truly sustainable, Solomon said. The majority with a bronze certification, though moving in the right direction, are not sustainable yet, while silver towns are making “significant” progress, and are statewide leaders, he said.

Sustainable Jersey hasn’t yet published a gold certification but is working on it, Solomon said. When launched, it will differ from the lower levels by setting performance standards such as specific reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions.

The program’s success has made it a national model, and it’s beginning to be replicated in other states. Maryland now has a statewide program that’s similar to New Jersey’s.

But for now, the program is unique, said Michelle Knapik, Director of Sustainable Environment Programs at the [hppp://www.surdna.orgSurdna Foundation] which promotes green programs nationwide, and supports Sustainable Jersey with $225,000 a year.

“I do not believe there is any (other) systemic program that connects the learning across communities at a statewide level to leverage resources in effective ways in a way that Sustainable Jersey does,” Knapik said in an interview.

She argued that New Jersey’s small size has aided the process of communities learning from each other in urban, suburban, or rural settings, but said the model is replicable anywhere.

“It’s at a point where national funders and others can come in and say, ‘Wow, you are capturing amazing learning about this operating system. How can we help you replicate it in other places?’” she said.

Curtis Fisher, northeast regional director for the National Wildlife Federation, said Sustainable Jersey succeeds because it helps people act on their sincere but unfocused desire to live with more environmental sensitivity.

“People want to do this but they may not know how to do it,” he said.

Although communities may save money and make themselves more attractive to business by going green, people are really motivated by a concern for the earth and future generations, Fisher said.

“Most people come to this because they want a better future for our planet and their children,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sustainable Jersey is building on a green impulse that was taking root in some towns even before the program began.

Ocean County’s [http://www.gallowaytwp-nj.gov|Galloway Township] built a community garden at a cost of $15,000 in 2008, a year before the statewide program launched. Since then, the community of around 39,000 people has earned a silver certification by measures such as developing an inventory of natural assets like soils and waterways, mapping its “carbon footprint”, and compiling a fleet inventory of municipal vehicles.

This year, the township spent $10,000 on sustainable landscaping, has been teaching residents about invasive species, and promoting water conservation, said Barbara Fiedler, who heads Galloway’s Green Team. All the measures earned Galloway 430 points, well above the 350 required for silver status.

In addition to the Green Team’s work, the program appears to be changing people’s behavior, Fiedler said, citing a rise in the city’s recycling rate to 50 percent from about 44 percent in 2007.

“I think people are a lot more aware,” she said. “We don’t get anybody complaining about it.”

But the business community seems less interested, Fiedler said. Some businesses are failing to recycle as they are required to, and need to be reminded.

That’s at odds with the experience of participating townships, which see sustainability as a lifestyle choice rather than a series of onerous tasks, Solomon said.

“It’s not about jumping through hoops,” he said. “It’s about implementing life changes.”

Jon Hurdle is a Philadelphia-based freelance reporter who covers energy, environmental, and general news for national and regional media.

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