Close to the Edge

Dear Readers,
The city council wanted Takoma Park to be on the cutting edge of environmentalism. So, it formed the Task force on Environmental Action to tell it how to get there. The Task Force submitted recommendations, and the council began discussing the recommendations October 11.
Looks like the only cutting edge around here is the one used for whittling down the task force recommendations.
In a series of straw votes almost all the items discussed started out as proposed regulations and ended as proposed public educational efforts. An anti-idling law, a gas-powered blower ban, and a city composting station, all reduced to recommendations that the city encourages you to do at home – but no pressure! If you don’t want to, go right ahead and smush the rest of us with your big fat carbon footprint.

The task Force’s top recommendation was for the city to hire a full-time sustainability coordinator, though they knew this would not be possible for a while because of tight budgets. They hoped a hire would happen by 1012, but city staff – whose comments the council was reviewing as a springboard for this discussion, thought it would be longer than that.
City manager Barbara Matthews cautioned that if such a position was eventually created, the job description and objectives must be very clear – verrrrry clear. Obviously, she’s dealt with the council before.
Matthews suggested the city share the position with other municipalities, similar to arrangements in rural communities. Councilmember Fred Schultz liked that idea, in addition he suggested the alternative of getting “outside training” for existing staff. The staff people present, wondering how to fit environmental training into their schedules, refrained from throwing their binders at him.
Josh Wright, who last budget year strongly supported the creation of such a full-time position, again voiced strong support, saying “this is key.” He said he believes that city residents would be willing to pay for it even if it means a tax increase.
Mayor Williams said the city should have “a conversation” with residents to gauge how important it is to them, and what they’d be willing to sacrifice for it – such as a raise in taxes or the loss of another position.
Measured Response
Half-measures were suggested, as were quarter, eighth, and even smaller ones. The tiniest was the suggestion to award inexpensive prizes to employees who came up with ways to decrease their department’s carbon footprint. It was not quite the professional approach the task force had in mind.
Compost Yourself
The task force recommended a city composting station, similar to its leaf composting program. But, the staff though it was better for residents to do voluntarily at home. Public works director Dayrl Braithwaite said a city service might end up losing money and the station would have to meet county and state code.
Josh Wright suggested a subcommittee be formed to look into the issue. Fred Schultz speculated that there were residents with proper expertise who could advise the council.
Blow Back
The gas-powered leaf blower ban is is back where it left off. Months ago the council had hearings on the subject, watering the proposal down and complicating it up. Finally they just dropped it into the task force’s lap. The task force lobbed it back at them. So, months later, the council recapped the original discussions in which he same objections and alternatives were voiced.
A ban would be difficult to enforce – the police having more urgent responsibilities, they said. The city could ban its own, not civilian, use of gas blowers, at the small cost of $3000 to 4,000.
Josh Wright was in favor of a seasonal ban of gas mowers, allowing them in fall and spring, but banning them in the summer. That didn’t get much traction with the council.
Terry Seamens supported banning the city’s use of them. This led to a discussion of what alternatives the city could use. Rakes, of course, but electric blowers too. But, how to recharge the batteries, which only last half a day? Someone actually suggested having a gas generator on site to charge the batteries – failing to remember that the goal was to eliminate gasoline emissions.
The council missed that, and the wider implication it raised when they suggested electric powered solutions for blowers and, later, lawn mowers.
If the device is electric, somewhere a power station is spewing emissions to give it juice. It may be better than directly powering it with gas, and it may be out-of-sight out-of-mind, but it still pollutes.
The council pondered exchanging electric mowers for residents gas ones. Fred Schultz joked that the city should prohibit growing grass.
Idle Wild
The Task Force recommended banning idling – running a car engine when standing. The city manager informed the council that idling is already a violation of state law – but only if the car is unattended.
The problem is, again, enforcement. An officer would have to observe this happening for a certain number of minutes – not the most efficient use of a police officer’s time.
Dan Robinson suggested having cards that citizens could hand out to drivers idling their cars. Ah, vigilantism! Gilbert would come out of his cave to run with a environmentalist posse. Councilmember Reuben Snipper pointed out that in extreme temperatures, drivers would be reluctant to cooperate. Not if the cards were attached to bricks.
In the end, the train pulled up at the same destination it did last time – at the Education Station. The city should educate residents about these issues, and recommend they mend their ways.
How close to that cutting edge are we getting, Dear Reader?
Oh, well, they aren’t done, and the task force’s more proactive, innovative proposals, such as buying city street lights from the electric company, are yet to be discussed.

– Gilbert


About the Author

Gilbert is the pseudonym of a hard-bitten, hard-drinking, long-time Takoma Park resident who maintains the granolapark blog. Gilbert and William L. Brown — Granola Park's mild-mannered chief of staff, researcher, and drink pourer — have never been seen in the same place at the same time.

5 Comments on "Close to the Edge"

  1. Gilbert–
    Thanks for the coverage of the discussion of the TFEA report. As the person who wrote the report’s air quality chapter, there are a few things I’d like to point out.
    1) The leaf blower ban proposal actually advanced slightly. The city council agreed by consensus that Takoma Park should phase out the use of blowers in our parks and rights of way. I have confirmed this with City Manager Barbara Matthews. I hope the council seriously considers a seasonal ban, especially when they take into account the heat wave we had this summer.
    2) The city manager was, unfortunately, incorrect when she said that state law prohibits idling only when the car is unoccupied. In fact, state law prohibits drivers from ever leaving their cars running and unattended. The five-minute rule has nothing to do with occupancy. Text is below for both laws.
    § 21-1101. Unattended motor vehicle.
    (a) Duty of driver upon leaving unattended vehicle.- Except as provided in subsection (c) of this section, a person driving or otherwise in charge of a motor vehicle may not leave it unattended until the engine is stopped, the ignition locked, the key removed, and the brake effectively set.
    The transportation code also says “A motor vehicle engine may not be allowed to operate for more than 5 consecutive minutes when the vehicle is not in motion.” There are some exceptions, of course (when you’re stuck in traffic, for example, you can keep your engine on as long as you want). mentions Montgomery County’s anti-idling policy for its fleet of vehicles
    From the TFEA report: “A recent paper estimates that idling makes up 1.6 percent of all CO2 emissions nationwide–a small percentage but a big impact: 93 million metric tons (MMT) of CO2 and 10.6 billion gallons of gasoline per year. In fact, reducing idling by one minute would eliminate 8 MMt of CO2 a year.” (that’s 8 million metric tons)
    3) You write, “An officer would have to observe [the idling] happening for a certain number of minutes – not the most efficient use of a police officer’s time.”
    You need to look at the TFEA report again. It recommends “zero tolerance,” given that idling for more than 10 seconds is a waste of gasoline. Pressed for a time limit, the report suggested that the limit be 1 minute, but officers currently have discretion to approach anyone and ask them what they’re up to. Just such a tactic could be used with people sitting on Carroll in parking spaces, texting or talking on the phone while their engines are running. A simple, “would you turn your engine off, please” is all that’s needed. If asked why, the officer could say, “It’s against the law to run your engine for no reason.”
    4) You wrote of electric leaf blowers: “If the device is electric, somewhere a power station is spewing emissions to give it juice. It may be better than directly powering it with gas, and it may be out-of-sight out-of-mind, but it still pollutes.”
    That’s not necessarily true. The city gets a lot of its electricity from wind power, no? So instead of a power plant, it’s a wind turbine that is supplying the juice. If we installed solar panels at the new PW facility, it would be solar power. Not to mention the fact that an electric blower takes a lot less energy to run and does not pollute locally. Besides, one can always use a rake or a broom and avoid the trade-off altogether.
    5) You wrote: “The gas-powered leaf blower ban is back where it left off. Months ago the council had hearings on the subject, watering the proposal down and complicating it up.”
    The council has never held hearings on the subject. I have suggested (and suggest again here) that they actually propose regulations and then hold a hearing or series of hearings. Instead, they have held worksessions. The first was in January 2009, the second some months later. At the first, Seth Grimes and I participated. At the second, the council simply discussed again what it had already discussed.
    There has been no “public” opposition to the proposal. The only citizen opposition we’ve heard about has been from anonymous residents, as quoted by their representatives. Mayor Williams, for example, said at the Oct. 11 meeting that a couple of people had told him they would “storm” city hall if the council enacted a ban. It would be nice if these storm troopers had to explain their positions at a public hearing, but so far, that hasn’t happened.
    (I need to give a shout-out here to Bruce Williams for his helpful comments about lawn care equipment. The mayor said he had bought a Neuton (battery-powered lawnmower) and an electric leaf blower. He will use a gas one for big jobs only.)
    They also have never “watered the proposal down,” since they never formally considered the subject. A seasonal ban would not be as strict as a 365-day-a-year ban, of course, but a seasonal ban is certainly acceptable to me. Josh Wright is quite right when he says that during the summer, all the blowers are doing is blowing dust around, a remarkably unhealthy practice considering the polluted air we already experience. (In addition,
    Wright was speaking of blowers, not mowers, when he spoke of a seasonal ban.)
    6) Lastly, both the leaf blower ban proposal and the anti-idling proposal are “pro-active.” Are they innovative? Well, yes, if one considers “innovative” to mean “forward-looking.” But a good idea does not have to be “innovative” to make sense.
    Thanks for allowing me to comment.

  2. You quoted us saying “An officer would have to observe [the idling] happening for a certain number of minutes – not the most efficient use of a police officer’s time.” Then you told us “You need to look at the TFEA report again. It recommends “zero tolerance,”
    We weren’t referring to the TFEA report, we were referring to the current law, as described by city staff at the meeting.
    We stand by the statement “The gas-powered leaf blower ban is back where it left off. Months ago the council had hearings on the subject, watering the proposal down and complicating it up.”
    OK, the council held “discussions” not “hearings,” but the fact is that they talked about the blower ban’s pros and cons in an open meeting, and heard testimony from citizens, including yourself, about it. The same hurdles and doubts came up then and they came to pretty much the same conclusions: they didn’t want to deal with enforcing a total ban, they might ban the city use of gas-blowers, they might do a seasonal ban, or they could just have an educational campaign.
    If that isn’t “watering down” a total ban, I don’t know what it is.

  3. We’ll probably have to agree to disagree, but banning use by the city crews is a positive first step. Barbara Matthews has told me that was the consensus of the council, but it will still need to be memorialized in a resolution.
    There is a difference between a worksession and a hearing. At most worksessions, citizens are not allowed to speak. They must address the worksession topic during the public comment period. So, at the first worksession, Seth and I sat at the table and spoke. At the second, the council heard from Daryl Braithwaite, and at the end, Seth went up to say a few words. I’d hardly call that testimony.
    Indeed, they have “watered down” the total ban proposal. Except so far, they still have not taken up anything. Josh Wright would like to see an up-or-down vote on a seasonal ban. If that were to pass, I’d consider it an extremely significant step forward. I’m not holding my breath.
    As for the idling, obviously I misunderstood what you were referring to. The city manager had the law wrong, and I understood her to be talking about how any new idling law could be enforced. No mention was made of the 1-minute standard in the report. The way you have described it makes it seem as if the city is admitting it cannot and will not enforce state idling law.
    As currently written, state law requires officers to observe someone idling for more than 5 minutes. In contrast, a “zero tolerance” policy would not require them to sit around and watch; if they saw that someone was just sitting idly (forgive me) in a car with the engine running, they could go up and ask them to turn their engine off. The way the discussion was framed makes the initiative appear to be much more difficult than it has to be.
    If we went after some of the obvious sources of air emissions with the zealousness we currently reserve for tree protection, we might actually make a dent in pollution levels.

  4. Isn’t “memorializing” something that happens when the object of the memorial is dead? If so would not the City “memorializ[ing] in a resolution.. banning the use [of leaf blowers under some conditions} by the city crews” actually indicate that that ban is dead and not effective? Just asking!

  5. Good point, Alain. That was my mistake. I misquoted the city manager. She said “formalize.”
    Thanks for pointing that out. My apologies to Ms. Matthews.

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