“I’ve never thought of this as a partisan issue,” says Ulster County Executive Mike Hein of his focus on sustainability. “I know there are some folks out there who don’t get it. But we have strong job growth while protecting our environment. It’s a false choice; you can absolutely focus on developing sustainable industries while understanding that strong quality of life is linked to keeping the environment pristine.”
In the December issue of National Geographic, the magazine featured Ulster County as standard bearer for sustainability. A full-color pullout map and brief article entitled “Dreaming Green” presents Ulster to 6.7 million readers in 40 languages, lauding the county’s trail network, utility scale solar project, Farm Hub, and open space protection. It’s just one of a lengthening list of kudos: the Environmental Protection Agency, state Department of Environmental Conservation, the National Association of Counties, Rail Trail Conservancy, and the White House have recognized Ulster’s progress.
Hein is thrilled with the recognition—and even more thrilled with the reality that the story barely scratches the surface.
“Getting the county government itself to 100 percent renewable, that’s the area we could control,” Hein says. “And we’re moving toward even more generation—on former landfills that are sitting idle, at the community college campus. We have more utility scale solar breaking ground in spring and hopefully done by the second quarter. Soon we should be producing 20 percent or more of the whole county’s needs.”
Solar and wind have reached a tipping point in the developing world, becoming less expensive to build than fossil fuel extraction projects. There’s more pushback in countries with mature extractive-energy infrastructure, and Hein hopes Ulster can serve as an example of what is possible—and of the multiplier effects on economy and quality of life.
“Our goal is to design models and educate about alternatives,” Hein says. “Environmental actions dovetail into so many steps and radiate in so many directions.”
He cites the county-level response to a Robert Wood Johnson study of health statistics that put Ulster in the bottom fifth of the state a few years ago. Now it’s in the top quarter, but nobody is back-burnering the cause.
“We’re working with the health department and the city on plans for a linear park within Kingston, which is about much more than recreation,” Hein says. “It’s about inner city families without cars having safe, easy access to low-cost, healthy food.”
The secret sauce is conflict resolution. When stormwater concerns arose in repurposing Sophie Finn Elementary School as a community college satellite, planners opted for permeable pavement and added a green wall.
“It was going to become a boarded-up, graffiti-covered wreck, and now it’s a community college 100 yards from the high school,” says Hein. “It took a $7.8 million public/private partnered capital project, but we did this with zero impact on the local taxpayers. Successful partnerships are the biggest multiplier effect of all.”
When the county comptroller’s office questioned the economics of providing electronic vehicle car charging stations on the taxpayer dime, Hein and company got the county chamber of commerce on board to pay the cost.
“Another multiplier,” Hein says. “People actually search for charging stations when they’re deciding where to take their vacations.”
IN THE TRENCHES
“I can’t help but notice that no matter how small the grant, there’s the same degree of paperwork involved,” says Rosendale town board member Jen Metzger with a chuckle.
The grant she was working on in late December is comparatively small ($16,000) to locate one of the electronic charging stations in the heart of Rosendale’s business district.
“The state pays 80 percent, and 20 percent can be in-kind donations,” she says. “So the chamber is donating the power supply, IBW Local 363 (the electricians’ union) is donating the work, and Bob Gallagher’s highway department is prepping the site. It’s a dream partnership.”
Besides her town board work, which involves constant collaboration with one-time election opponent Jeanne Walsh, Metzger is co-founder and director of Citizens for Local Power. The organization was founded to oppose the Central Hudson/Fortis merger. When the merger went through anyway, Metzger and her colleagues didn’t go away whimpering.
They parlayed their collective learning, charisma, and contacts into a seat at the table with the state Public Service Commission and a voice in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s “Reforming the Energy Vision” initiative, and they’re working hard on the nuts and bolts of community choice aggregation, calling on what Metzger describes as “the great minds in the country. There are so many initiatives and moving parts to REV, and constant vigilance is essential.”
STRIDES IN DUTCHESS COUNTY
“Solarize Dutchess is making great strides, part of the Solarize Hudson Valley,” says Eoin Wrafter, Commissioner for Planning & Development in Dutchess County. “We were looking at doing a county program, but they got the grant and had the staffing and infrastructure, so we’re working with them. We used our GIS to identify pockets of potential interest to start with. Beacon was one of the first; Red Hook is also going strong. In Wappingers, Arlington High School has an array on the roof and they did an educational program for residents; they’re tying it in with a student group. The reality of solar today versus five years ago is like the iPhone—the tech has improved dramatically. So a person’s old experience is not necessarily valid, and the cost is pleasantly different too.”
Preserving agriculture and open space is the mandate of the Partnership for Manageable Growth.
“The county partners with landowners and organizations to provide up to a 50 percent match for the purchase of development rights,” says Wrafter. “So far we have preserved 2,900 acres of farmland and 500 acres of open space.”
Dutchess County peeps are also justifiably proud of their emerging rail trail system. The William R. Steinhaus Rail Trail stretches 13 miles from the Walkway Over the Hudson to the Hopewell Junction Depot, restored as a rail museum, and Wrafter says they’re not done yet.
According to Wrafter, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) just issued a Request for Expressions of Interest on the railbed from Hopewell Junction to Pawling.
“There’s a potential trail proposed which will allow hikers and bikers to travel from the Bronx city line all the way to the Walkway and the Gunks,” he says.
Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro says both Ulster and Dutchess are pinpointing solutions for key issues in the Hudson Valley.
“Mike Hein and I share ideas and do our own thing, maybe check different boxes,” Molinaro says. “Criminal justice reform and getting it right on mental health and handicapped issues are big priorities for us, and in those areas I believe we have established what we believe are good models for ourselves and for others.”
The ThinkDIFFERENTLY initiative for special needs won an award last fall from Taconic Resources for Independence; Equal Employment Opportunity/Human Rights Officer Jody Miller received this year’s Lawrence J. Cooke Peace Innovator Award from the statewide dispute resolution association.
In an era when local initiatives may become ever more vital, our sweet river valley is poised to become a place others can look to for leadership on multiple fronts when it comes to a livable future.
“In New York especially, counties are laboratories of innovation,” says Molinaro. “In Dutchess County, we live by FDR’s motto: Try something!”
Or a few things, as the case may be.