“I have a dream that the people in power, as well as the media, start treating this crisis like the existential emergency it is.”
– Greta Thunberg
In addition to their commute to work — usually on foot or bike — one thing that New Paltz Village Mayor Tim Rogers and Town Supervisor Neil Bettez have in common is their commitment to use public policy as an avenue to combat climate change.
We’re now in a new geological time period, the Anthropocene epoch: a term used to describe the most recent period in the Earth’s history where the impact of the human species has been so extreme that it has permanently altered the planet’s climate and ecosystems. The planet is warming at an accelerated rate due to carbon and methane emissions, sea levels are rising, icebergs are melting and species are going extinct at a horrifying rate.
As the 17-year-old environmental activist Greta Thunberg has pointed out to global leaders on the world’s largest stage, “The climate crisis has already been solved. We have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.” The young activist from Stockholm, now a figurehead for climate action, has called on political leaders to step up and protect their citizens from the cascading impacts of global warming and mass extinction.
Hudson Valley One asked Mayor Rogers and Supervisor Bettez what they are doing or have done to ensure that New Paltz is on the frontlines of the movement to cool down the planet, put green policies in place and implement strategies to combat the negative impacts of climate change. The two local leaders handed HV1 a two-page list of initiatives they’ve been working on during their political tenure.
“There’s no one thing,” said Rogers at The Bakery when asked what is the most radical thing New Paltz can do to fight this crisis. “We have to come at it from several different approaches, which is what we’re doing.” He pointed to the single-hauler law that the Town and Village put in place, requiring that all residents utilize one refuse company. “Not only do our residents get a better price from one hauler, but we also have one truck doing the hauling instead of four. That reduces carbon emissions and wear and tear on our roads. One garbage truck going down a Village road is equivalent to 10,000 trips of a Toyota Camry.”
Bettez pointed to the work that the Town and Village are investing in bike/pedestrian transportation. “The biggest impact on greenhouse gases comes from automobiles,” said the supervisor. “We want to make New Paltz as walkable and bikable as we can through infrastructure like the Henry W. DuBois project [one linear mile of a shared bike/ped lane] and more sidewalks. The Village has almost no streets without sidewalks, and in fact is one of the oldest walkable villages.”
The supervisor also noted that the Town and Village, working with the Open Space Institute and the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, have helped preserve 16 acres of land that are now part of the River-to-Ridge Trail that links to both the Mohonk Preserve and the Empire State Trail, directly from the Village. “We’re trying to do whatever we can to make it easier and more attractive for people to walk and ride their bikes,” said Bettez.
Rogers, who can always be seen traveling the Village he governs either by foot or bike, echoed Bettez, saying, “The best thing people can do? Get out of their cars! Walk to work, bike to work, take one or two less trips a week in your car. In the City, people don’t think about walking a mile or two, because they don’t want to lose their parking spot. Here, we drive a few hundred feet. It’s not necessary, and we certainly know it’s not healthy for our bodies or the environment. It also feels great to walk to work and to walk home at the end of the day.” The two talked about upcoming e-bike law that they want to have in place by April, which would allow electric bicycles to travel on public roads.
In terms of electricity savings, Rogers points to the Town and Village’s automatic account with Green Mountain Energy, a renewable energy resourced company via wind and solar. “We aggressively took that opportunity to change the law to have all residents who have an electric account to get their energy from Green Mountain,” said Rogers. “They can opt out, but they’d have to choose to do that. It would make no sense because it’s cheaper and it’s greener.”
The Village has also converted streetlights to LED with controls, put in ductless mini-splits with assistance from Rycor HVAC at the Village Hall and Youth Center and, most notably, along with the Town, went after green architecture and engineering for their new police headquarters and firehouse. “We will have the greenest firehouse in all of New York State,” said Rogers proudly.
In terms of land use and zoning laws — another large component of any attempt at smart growth — Rogers said that he and his board continue to push for greater density in the Village. This needs to be done with greater residential zoning restrictions in the Town, which still has five-acre zoning, eating up land, costing tax dollars and disturbing wildlife corridors and watersheds.
According to Bettez, the Town Board is considering putting a Critical Environmental Area (www.townofnewpaltz.org/sites/g/files/vyhlif3541/f/uploads/shawangunkcea.pdf) into its zoning that would protect lands that border or are part of the Shawangunk Ridge, in an effort to preserve critical habitat, forests, waterways and lands steeped in environmental and cultural richness. “We’ve gotten pushback from our own Planning Board, so we’re trying to test the concept and take an incremental approach.” The Town also recently passed a real estate transfer tax that will fund open space preservation, but that has yet to be utilized in terms of any acquisitions.
Rogers noted that many of the improvements the Village is making are happening beneath the surface: water conservation, sewer treatment plant improvements, upgrading century-old sewer pipes to reduce stormwater runoff infiltrating the sewage system. “These are the things that really start to move the needle, but they’re not sexy and they’re not seen,” said the mayor. “We don’t have a ribbon-cutting ceremony when we replace an old sewer pipe or create more permeable surfaces or find better ways of burning off methane at the wastewater treatment plant. We only have 30-to-40-million-gallon capacity at our sewer treatment plant, so our growth has a cap. It’s finite.”
Bettez added that the Town is working on smaller things — maybe not huge game-changers, but modeling green living, such as by adding composting to the Recycling Center. “When residents come out to the Recycling Center, they can take their food scraps with them and put them into the municipal compost pile,” he said. “When organic matter is put underground into a landfill, it creates methane gas, which is unnecessary. All you have to do with food scraps is put them in an area outside or take it to the Town’s Recycling Center. Bears won’t come out; it doesn’t smell bad; and you learn these things by seeing other people do it or having your municipality demonstrate it. That’s an easy lifestyle change that has enormous benefits to our environment.”
Rogers concurred. “Composting, walking, riding your bike, volunteering for one of our many citizen-run boards and commissions like the Planning Board, Zoning Board, Environmental Commission, Bike/Ped Commission…these are the ways that people can take direct action and be part of the change.”
To those scientists who do think that the Anthropocene epoch describes a new geological time period, the next question is, “When did it begin?” which also has been widely debated. A popular theory is that it began at the start of the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, when human activity had a great impact on carbon and methane in the Earth’s atmosphere. Others think that the beginning of the Anthropocene should be set at 1945, when humans tested the first atomic bomb and then dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. The resulting radioactive particles were detected in soil samples globally.
It has been a long time since the Town and Village have worked so cooperatively together, and maybe this shows residents that cooperation is not only beneficial, but also critical to combat the climate crisis.