Fort Smith officials urged to join municipal sustainability program

by The City Wire staff ( 7 views 

The city of Fort Smith could soon join Fayetteville and the Arkansas Municipal League in backing a program whose goal is to increase sustainability in cities across the state.

According to Michele Halsell, managing director of the Applied Sustainability Center at the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, the point of moving cities small and large across the state toward sustainability is about more than just being green. Halsell spoke to the noon study session of the Fort Smith Board of Directors on Tuesday (May 27).

"This is not an idea we came up with on our own, it's something that's happening in other states. But we thought it might be something that's beneficial for Arkansas cities to help keep them competitive with the cities in other states. So there's a big economic development component to this.”

The program Halsell has proposed is modeled on Sustainable Jersey, which bills itself as "a certification program for municipalities in New Jersey that want to go green, save money and take steps to sustain their quality of life over the long term. Launched in 2009, we are a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides tools, training and financial incentives to support and reward communities as they pursue sustainability programs."

According to Halsell, the program in New Jersey distributed more than $300,000 in grants from corporate sponsors, such as Wal-Mart, to communities attempting to improve sustainability standards and reach sustainability goals throughout the state, which has a 71% participation rate among its municipalities.

Peter Nierengarten with the city of Fayetteville's sustainability and strategic planning department, also spoke during the Fort Smith meeting and said cities that choose to participate would not be bound by a specific set of criteria in attempting to achieve a certification through the proposed Sustainable Arkansas program. Instead, he said all actions would be voluntary and suggestions would be made through an assessment of various criteria set fourth by the program.

As an example, Nierengarten said Fayetteville passed an ordinance that limits invasive plant species in order to improve the city's sustainability, as well as requiring all homes built in the city to meet certain energy efficiency guidelines. Neither was explicitly required to reach any specific sustainability certifications, but the city chose to take both actions in the form of ordinances as a way to take action on sustainability.

Vice Mayor Kevin Settle asked Halsell how passing further ordinances or imposing new regulations could impact a city like Fort Smith, which has been fighting to overcome a perception of unfriendliness to businesses. Halsell turned the question back to Settle and said in other parts of the country, sustainability initiatives have not had adverse reactions.

"In Tennessee the way they're approaching this … basically, sustainability is another word for business friendly. It's another way to attract residents and attract investment in your community."

Nierengarten said cities participating in the program would have to weigh the outcomes of any proposed actions city leaders would want to take to improve a city's rating, citing the energy efficiency building standards his city passed, which add about $2,500 to the cost of new homes built in Fayetteville.

"When you compare the energy savings over time that that homeowner would experience as a result of those efficiencies, that $2,500 was actually a net positive each year. The decrease in energy cost was greater than the amount they're actually paying each month to build that house."

Should enough cities express support for the proposed Sustainable Arkansas program Halsell has been promoting across the state, including at a meeting of the Arkansas Municipal League — which unanimously backed the proposal — she said it would be possible to get grant funding and begin creating an organizational framework by either later this year or next year.

A resolution supporting the Halsell's efforts will be voted on at the June 3 Board of Directors meeting.

Fort Smith ranks 42nd in the nation in a sustainability practices index created by researchers at Colorado State University — the only city in Arkansas to make the list. It is something that City Director Keith Lau said he would like to maintain and improve upon in future years.

"I think it's a great idea. I think it's a good way for us to benchmark our community. We're so high on the list. Why wouldn't we jump on it? And speak about a great marketing tool (to potential industry). I mean, we're always wanting to compare ourselves to other parts of Arkansas, Northwest Arkansas, Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers."