15 Mar 2015

Sustainability pros and advocates in Roanoke, Virginia persevere amid Tea Party opposition

Written by Jim Pierobon

Few, if any, Virginians believe working on sustainability initiatives in the southwestern part of the state is an easy task. Many people who live or work there know some elected officials who are openly skeptical about human-influenced global warming, and with it doubts about the benefits of conserving energy, curbing harmful greenhouse gas emissions and cleaning up local waste streams.

Part of that is due to the region’s long-standing conservative politics and heavy reliance on mining coal and burning it to generate electricity. But as coal-fired power plants become obsolete with ever-tightening restrictions on their emissions, lower cost natural gas and coal mines facing heightened scrutiny over their mining practices, the future of the Roanoke Valley can be seen through two very different lenses by city and county officials.

Image Questions linger whether Roanoke County, VA was ‘sustainable’ enough to attract this Sierra Nevada Brewery and retail beer operations which rejected chose to locate in Asheville, NC (above) rather than Roanoke . CREDIT: Asheville Food Trucks.

Case in point: the Roanoke city government is widely viewed to ‘get’ how sustainability makes sense especially where it can help create jobs, improve human health through better air and water quality, attract new employers and retrain coal workers.  But attend or watch a Roanoke County Board of Supervisors meeting and you’ll see the outlook can be very different at times, especially when Roanoke Tea Party activists succeed in dominating the discussion.

So big can this difference be that membership in an organization that helps guide – but imposes no mandates – on regions trying to sustain their economies has triggered harsh claims on county workers and volunteers fueled largely by local Tea Party activists.

ImageThe membership organization I’m referring to here is ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability based in Oakland, Calif.  (ICLEI stands for International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives.) Its mission is “to build and serve a worldwide movement of local governments to achieve tangible improvements in global sustainability, with a specific focus on environmental conditions through cumulative local actions.”

While that may sound useful in terms of spotlighting successes and best practices that can be replicated elsewhere, Tea Party chapters throughout much of the U.S. believe ICLEI reflects “Agenda 21”, a United Nations’ directed – and some activitists allege a Communist – plot to suck wealth, private property and individuals rights from Americans in favor of helping developing countries for the global good.

Whatever Tea Party members believe, their activists in Roanoke s last year persuaded the County Board of Supervisors to withdraw its ICLEI membership and put the annual dues of $1,200 to better use.  The principal benefit of ICLEI membership is software that, among other things, enables local governments to establish baselines from which officials can track progress in reducing emissions and improving energy efficiency.  Slightly more than 1,000 local governments across the globe belong to ICLEI.

Roanoke County had been using ICLEI’s software since 2007. But the Tea Party apparently wasn’t convinced of the benefit, or any benefits, despite the county flirting with becoming an ozone nonattainment area for airborne pollutants on hot summer weekdays and losing the location in 2012 of a new brewery by Sierra Nevada to Asheville, NC. For the majority on the county Board, ICLEI membership meant they believed in global warming, which some members went out of their way to state they do not.

ImageRoanoke County Supervisor Al Bedrosian (left) campaigned against and voted to withdraw the County’s membership in ICLEI. CREDIT: Roanoke County

Supervisor Al Bedrosian, who campaigned against ICLEI membership leading up to his election in November 2013, told the Roanoke Times in late January 2014 “the whole ICELI thing does predicate itself that in order to be a part of it, you have to believe in global warming,” he said. “A core philosophy takes you places and there are a lot of places I don’t want to go.”

Chase Purdy, who reported on the ICLEI membership debate while at the Roanoke Times, cautioned in that January 2014 piece that objections by the naysayers were “nuanced”:   “For Bedrosian, it’s about aligning a municipality with a perspective in which he does not believe. For meeting-regular Noah Tickle, it’s the science he rejects. For (local resident RoxAnne) Christley, it’s about American status – opposing ICLEI is a way to shake her fist at the United Nations.”

If making measurable progress with sustainability initiatives meant simply ignoring what Tea Party activists have to say, well that would be one thing. But even ICLEI’s executive director in the US, Michael Schmitz, acknowledges that advocates cannot take this sitting down.

“The problem,” Schmitz wrote in a February 2012 op-ed on TriplePundit.com “is that the Tea Party groups and their allies seem intent on shutting down local dialogues, rather than discussing and debating ideas and solutions. Across the country, they attend city council and planning commission meetings, and too often resort to shouting and intimidation tactic. They protest the very idea of their local government running an energy efficiency program, preserving historic buildings, or creating a local plan to repair aging infrastructure.”

Efforts to interview either of the prominent leaders of the Roanoke Tea Party – Gregory Aldridge and “Chip” Tarbutton – were unsuccessful. Aldridge did reply to questions I sent him via email. In his responses, he objected to ICLEI’s ties to the United Nations and claimed the sustainability push through the ICLEI effort “refused” to do anything that would help clean up the County’s air and water.

What appears now to be the lone voice for sustainability on the five-member Roanoke County Board of Supervisors, Charlotte Moore, countered Aldridge asserting  via email that cleaning up the County’s air and water “are the two most prevalent issues that we were focused on.”

ImageRoanoke County Supervisor Charlotte Moore (right) is widely viewed to be the most passionate member of County’s Board of Supervisors for ICLEI membership.  CREDIT: Roanoke County

“It is very frustrating to try and communicate with people who have their own opinions and agenda and who aren’t willing to listen to both sides of an issue,” Moore wrote. “The Tea Party continues to acknowledge that they want clean air and water but they refuse to support the very things that help provide it.”

“The lessons that I’ve learned from them are first and foremost that you can’t reason with unreasonable people,” Moore continued. “I have listened to them with open ears and mind and tried to understand their rationale . . . they don’t have a plan for sustaining our earth.”

Moore urged elected officials in Virginia and elsewhere who have dealt with similar situations “to try and find a way to move forward.” She asserts Tea Party activitists should not be allowed “to prevail over common sense and passionate people who care about our earth and our next generation.”

In these instances, unfortunately, that’s precisely what happened on this issue before the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors.

Even after relinquishing the County’s membership, Moore said elected officials may be able to use the ICLEI software free of charge, as she is currently doing for Roanoke County.  Moore continues using the software to build on work by “incredible citizens who have donated that their time and energy to help implement the (emissions et al) information. We have dedicated staff, businesses and wonderful partners within our region who support these initiatives.”

Without more citizen involvement to counter the Tea Party diatribes, Virginians should expect more of the same unless, that is, a lot more sustainability advocates step up to be counted and vote for like-minded officials.

Nell Boyle, the City of Roanoke’s sustainability coordinator who lives in the County, credited Moore with standing her ground. To overcome the obstacle that Tea Party activists are mounting, Boyle said sustainability advocates have to make a more compelling connection between economic development and environmental protection.

Which gets me to a common thread of many of my posts about how Virginia is falling farther and farther behind proven efforts by states throughout the Southeast U.S. to sustain their economies, build workforces of the future to engineer them and reduce toxins in the air and water that cause or contribute to asthma and other ailments.

Roanoke County residents should ask themselves:  how often will ideology trump human, environmental and economic health?

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