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Natural Awakenings Charlotte

Charlotte Mayoral Candidates Anthony Foxx and John Lassiter Talk Environment

Oct 02, 2009 02:49PM

Charlotte skyline

Charlotte is one of the fastest growing areas in the nation, ranking 7th for cities with population over a million. This influx directly affects infrastructure, transportation and air and water quality – all which impact our local environment. Natural Awakenings sat down with Democratic candidate for mayor Anthony Foxx and Republican candidate John Lassiter to discuss their views on Charlotte’s environment and what they would do to improve it. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

NA: In a recent sustainability ranking of the 50 largest cities in the nation, Charlotte was ranked 36th – not a very promising ranking.  Given that a city’s commitment to sustainability has a direct impact on the quality of life of its residents, as Mayor what steps would you take to put us on a more sustainable path?

Foxx: First and foremost, I have been a leader in shaping our land use plans. A lot of times when we talk about transportation we talk about roads and transit, but the belt environment impacts the environment as much as anything else. If you build the city environment in a certain way you can actually decrease the need to get into cars and the amount of congestion and the air quality problems we have. We’ve passed in the last four years some of the most aggressive environmental policies the city has ever had. For example, the post construction controls, which address some of the runoff issues and stripping of our tributaries and streams. We have approved a set of guidelines related to land use and street design guidelines which are still being worked on. But at the end of the day, the urban street guidelines will promote a land use strategy that decreases some of the congestion particularly in our green field areas.

The second area is transit. I had a town hall meeting this time last year and I asked experts in this community who deal with growth and growth management, what are some strategies that we can use to make this community sustainable? Every one of them said accelerating our transit plan because it helps us build upon existing infrastructure. Once you put it in a lot of it is coming into areas that are densely populated areas and promoting more vertical growth along the corridors allows you to not have to go to extremes in order to accommodate the residential and commercial growth. I took that information very seriously and today we have a year of studies that are going forward along the northeast line that goes to UNC Charlotte and the north line which is a commuter rail line going through the northern towns and hopefully the streetcar. It doesn’t mean that all those things are going to get built at the same time.

Lassiter: I think the city can be a model by how it operates. We need to find a system that reduces the amount of idling traffic in the center of city.

Another is finding ways to be a leader in recycling. We are in a partnership now with Coke a Cola and Harris Teeter to encourage more active participation particularly in parts of the city that don’t frequently participate in recycling. We are moving with the county to a single stream recycling. And then continuing to examine our methodologies that make our facilities more sustainable and environmentally friendly. We are going through that process right now with the environment committee and there are long-term studies of all of our buildings.

We are looking at ways to create renewable energy sources within a variety of our major operations centers. The airport for example is going to put solar panels on a maintenance hanger and we’re looking at potentially a solar field that could be a model for unused land around that facility. Similarly, we are examining whether we can put green roofs in places.

And then there are the big bucket issues - continue to work on expanding our mass transit system, reducing congestion and finding ways to have less people traveling with one person in a car and encourage folks to ride the light rail, take a bus, get on a bicycle, find a way to walk to provide for their basic needs.

NA: Last year the Brookings Institution ranked the carbon footprint of the 100 largest metro areas in the US from lightest to heaviest and Charlotte ranked 72nd, giving us one of the highest carbon footprints in the nation.  As Mayor, how would you address our impact on the climate?

Foxx: The first thing I’m going to do as Mayor is to sign the US Conference of Mayors Climate Change Protection Agreement which is something that our current mayor has resisted. I think it’s important not only symbolically but to actually give this community and our city a target to shoot for. I brought it up a few years ago and we lost that vote by one, but you don’t need a vote when the mayor signs it and I will.

Lassiter: We’ve got one thing that works against us all the time and that is because of our geography and that we are on the back edge of a mountain range with a lot of industrial uses around us that tend to center things in the air that aren’t necessarily issues that were generated by our community.

We also have a series of interstates that criss cross where we are with a lot of that being truck traffic and uses that are commercial activity along corridors that kind of sit in this Piedmont valley region. I think what we have to do is begin to think more regionally about how we deal with these things.  But really there are two reasons. One is very pragmatic in a sense that air quality standards that are coming from the EPA are putting pressure on cities that are not compliant and that limits our ability to continue road building and deal with congestion that is here and a number of unfinished projects that need to be completed.

It also gives us a chance to expand our mass transit options beyond simply the city of Charlotte or Mecklenburg county so we are working effectively now with Union County, Cabarrus County and surrounding counties to get more people out of their car. The other thing is a new sprinter service that will run from the airport to downtown and hydrogen vehicles will be part of the fleet that has less carbon footprint for those who are coming to town to do business can take a much more environmentally friendly vehicle to come into the city.

We put increasing numbers of our police, who used to travel in cruisers in dense areas, out of cars and onto Segways. We’ve had bike patrols for several years that can be expanded in other parts of the city.

NA: Charlotte has a well-known air quality problem, which contributes to our recent ranking as one of the top 10 worst cities in the US to live for those with asthma. We exceed the federal government’s limit for air pollutants such as ozone, which has both health and economic impacts. As Mayor, how would you improve our air quality?

Foxx: We have to improve it. We are in a non-attainment state and if we aren’t vigilant about creating a plan to get to an attainment status we will lose federal highway funding next year. The trouble is, in order to reduce the impact of air quality we’ve got to do some things that are hard. They involve not only public costs but to some degree private costs. An example, we have lost over 35% of our tree canopy over the last ten years, it would be foolish to think that didn’t have something to do with the air quality problems. In order to start reversing that trend, developers are going to have to start planting more trees and take fewer out. There’s a cost to that.

Looking at land use plans, when you start talking about preserving trees there’s a cost opportunity. It’s also important to look at transportation. We’re building more roads now than four years ago but when you have more roads you have cars, you have congestion, emissions and more air quality problems. One of the things we need to look at as a cultural perspective in the city is reducing our dependency on automobiles. That’s why transit is important, but it’s also why we look to triple our annual investment in sidewalks. That’s why bike lanes are important. We want to give people more options than they’ve ever had before.

Lassiter: The message is we have to think much more regionally about how we solve this problem. We are an 11 county region that is the measure for air quality and not everybody in that region understands the impact of what that means for our community.

The federal government may loosen those standards because my understanding is almost every metropolitan area in the country failed those standards this spring so they’re not going to shut down all the federal support for programs. That doesn’t mean that we can’t aggressively find ways to do that.

We are aggressively working on expanding our light rail capacity through the northeast. We have projects of one form or another of quality and design to expand a commuter line that will run up 77 to reduce some of the traffic that comes down that corridor.

We’ve got to take more of our bus fleet and move it from diesel into cleaner sources. We have efforts underway with Piedmont Natural Gas with gas vehicles and we are looking into hydrogen vehicles. We’ve got to marry that up with the school system and the buses and figure out how you begin to have a much better system.

NA: We have lost more than 25% of our tree canopy since 1986 and many attribute this to a weak city tree ordinance, which only requires developers to retain 10% of the original trees when they develop a property. What are your views on reversing this dramatic loss of our tree canopy – something we depend upon for our quality of life and once earned us the nickname “city of trees?”

Foxx: We clearly need a tougher ordinance. I think we need to recognize that the city is moving to almost to the largest extent of its ability to be development free. So we start thinking what happens then?  What happens when we can’t push the boundaries anymore and there’s no more green space?  What are we going to do as a city? The answer is we are going to reclaim parts of the city and start to grow more vertically. I am a strong believer that the smartest road is the one that you don’t have to build.

A lot of our land use strategies should be encouraged. I think we are close to a point where that’s going to happen anyway. We’ve got areas in Charlotte today that literally did not exist 20 years ago. This creates a lot of infrastructure needs and that adds to the cost and environmental strain. We’re almost at the end of that conversation because soon there won’t be anyplace left to go. The point I’m trying to make is the more we can encourage vertical development through our transit and land use models, not only will it be better for the trees and environment but it will also have a positive impact on us economically.

Lassiter: Well, our tree canopy is still pretty amazing. It’s pretty remarkable how many trees cover our city and most of what we see is pretty intact. The challenge for us going forward is continue to aggressively have a replanting system that puts trees of a sufficient size to provide shade and benefit for air quality.

We also need to look for development options that incorporate a very healthy perspective about trees. We have a tree save ordinance that is a model for use around the country, but we are a growing city so we are going to have a certain amount of housing, shopping centers and complexes as part of what a growing city needs. So to cut off our growth pattern would put enormous stress on infill development that will take out more of that tree canopy that we all take for granted closer in.

NA: The NC Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources has recognized sediment as the number one pollutant in Catawba River Basin streams. According to the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, city inspectors are woefully understaffed to inspect all the sites contributing to this degradation. Would you ensure the City supplies adequate Staff Numbers to ensure compliance of erosion control permits?

Foxx: Yes, I would.

Lassiter: I don’t know how many people we have assigned to that right now. I do know that there are long-standing uses that go back generations that are periodically discovered. We’ve got to make sure that we aren’t intentionally damaging our water. We’ve also got to find out if some of the tools we are using are the best ones.

A perfect example is we passed a post storm water control ordinance two years ago and it’s a pretty inflexible standard.  It also didn’t take into account certain environmentally sensitive areas. So folks who were developing in areas that were based near rivers and tributaries had systems that don’t apply if they were more environmentally friendly then the ones that are requiring them to tear up more trees and build more retention ponds.

NA: Beyond what we have already covered is there anything else you will do as Mayor to improve our environmental health and quality of life?

Foxx: Well, I think one of the things we don’t take accurate account of is our lifestyles. All of us play a role in how the environment is either taken care of or not taken care of. I’m a father of two young children, a five year old and a three year old, and both of them spend their first five to ten minutes each morning coughing because both they are suffering from the same asthma that we were talking about earlier. So I live with this problem of lack of apathy and attention to environmental sustainability. I feel very much that we’ve got to put our attention here and not just from a government regulatory perspective but from an individual lifestyle perspective as well.

I want to support industry in this community that corrects some of these problems. For us I think the challenge is trying to find ways not only to make the city more sustainable but also identifying ways that we can encourage private behavior to follow [these models] and even go beyond what the city is doing.

Lassiter: I was instrumental in the city creating an environmental committee in 2005. We recognized there were a number of initiatives and activities that the city was involved in but not comprehensively coming into a marriage.

I think we are going to find more opportunities like that as we go forward. We can be a leader that identifies opportunities for this community to do the kinds of things that create real significant value. You lay that against our economic development initiative to be a leader in energy and renewable energy and match that against the relationship of being environmentally conscious and green in the way we look at our world. We really can provide some significant leadership in the region and in the country.

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