2021 | Government

Council members appreciate work, but think county’s Climate Action Plan lacks specifics

Some say land use, housing, zoning components should be highlighted

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Some Montgomery County Council members criticized aspects of the county’s Climate Action Plan on Tuesday, but said they appreciate the overall work that went into creating it.

Adriana Hochberg, the climate change officer in County Executive Marc Elrich’s office, and several other county officials who worked on the plan briefed council members on it. She started her presentation by noting this week is Climate Week. 

Elrich, Hochberg and other county officials unveiled the Climate Action Plan in June. It seeks to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in the county by 2035, and cut them 80% by 2027.

It identifies many ways to achieve those goals, such as affordable carbon-free electricity throughout the county, decreasing the carbon footprint in buildings, and sequestering carbon by protecting and increasing forests and green spaces.

Despite the work on the plan, however, multiple council members said they had concerns about how it was drafted and what it contained.

Council Member Hans Riemer, who is running for county executive against Elrich next year, said he had “very mixed feelings” about the plan.

He lauded the technical expertise of Hochberg and other county officials in the briefing. But he said the plan does not address issues like smart growth — a term former Gov. Parris N. Glendening used to describe development and planning encouraging compact communities, mixed-land use and diverse housing options, among other areas.

The plan also does not address local clean energy generation, Riemer said. 

Riemer referred to comments President Joe Biden made earlier this month — that to combat climate change, the nation must move toward producing roughly half of its energy from solar power. Montgomery County could do that by planning where solar is needed, but the plan does not address it enough, Riemer added.

He and several other council members were also concerned about the lack of information concerning housing, transportation, zoning and land-use decisions in the plan.

Council Member Nancy Navarro said that failing to look at climate change holistically could lead to a “silos approach” between county agencies working on the plan.

“To pretend that land use, transportation, housing is not directly related … for us to be able to mitigate this very important issue of climate change, it doesn’t make any sense to me,” Navarro said. 

Earlier, Hochberg said Elrich’s office welcomes input from the County Council to help execute the plan, and any corresponding legislation.

“The executive doesn’t have a monopoly on the creation of climate policies and legislation. … It’s a joint responsibility and joint effort, so I really welcome our continued collaboration as we move forward with you,” she said.

“Sure, we appreciate that,” County Council President Tom Hucker, who has said he also is considering running for county executive, responded. “The council, of course, has 100 staff and the executive has 14,000, but we’re counting on you.”

Council Member Craig Rice asked later how the plan was addressing racial equity and social justice goals. He was concerned that while broad goals are nice, there needs to be direct policies that accomplish them. 

Douglas Weisburger, a senior planning specialist within the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, said he and county officials contracted with Emerald Cities Collaborative, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on “sustainable economic development analysis.”

Weisburger said the county’s work with that firm is meant to help connect underserved, underrepresented and historically marginalized communities with potential jobs and career training related to combatting climate change.

Council Member Andrew Friedson said he appreciated the work on the plan, including the 86 climate action steps.

Those include:

  • Urge the state to adopt a 100% renewable portfolio standard by 2050, instead of the current 50% standard
  • Disincentivize and end natural gas utilities in new construction
  • Expand transit service, including routes and overall frequency 
  • Limit use of cars in downtown commercial districts, and encourage shared and open streets programs
  • Expand the electric vehicle charging network
  • Advocate for a vehicle carbon/gas tax or vehicle miles traveled tax
  • Retain and increase forests
  • Repair and improve stormwater conveyance systems
  • Provide tax credits or subsidies for low-income residents or rental properties to reduce water and energy use
  • Ban stormwater management requirement waivers
  • Designate “climate ambassadors” within each county department
  • Form a “climate change communication coalition” with communication students from local higher education institutions

Each one of those steps is a “massive undertaking,” Friedson said. But he agreed with colleagues that the plan could be more specific in how to accomplish some of those goals. 

“It does feel a little bit more like a menu than a manual, in terms of how we move forward, when we’re moving forward, what the process is going to be in order to move forward,” Friedson said. 

That means moving from the rhetoric of talking about climate change to actually reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other actions, he added.

“How do we transition this menu of options and ideas into a manual of what we’re going to do, when we’re going to do it, how we’re going to do it, and who’s going to be involved in it?” Friedson said. 

The Climate Action Plan will serve as a guide for county officials when drafting and considering legislation and policies, including for building energy performance standards, the 2018 International Green Construction Code and a potential ban on gas-powered leaf blowers, among others. 

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com