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Strategic plan in focus for Waynesville’s new environmental sustainability board

Strategic plan in focus for Waynesville’s new environmental sustainability board

Waynesville is revving up its eco-efforts with a freshly minted advisory board paving the way for a long-term plan to create an even cleaner environment that will continue to draw tourists — and put some green back into locals’ pockets, too. 

“This board wants to make Waynesville a better place for people to live, both in terms of the quality of their environment and their livelihoods,” said Waynesville Council Member Chuck Dickson. “Particularly those in lower income situations who could benefit from the cost savings.”

Last summer, Town Council approved a motion offered by Dickson to create Waynesville’s first environmental sustainability board, charged with protecting the natural resources that drive the region’s tourism-based economy.

It wasn’t the town’s first official action towards that end; around that same time, Waynesville declared its intent to become carbon-neutral by 2050, and more than a decade ago, town government facilitated installation of the third-ever electric vehicle charger west of Asheville.

The ESB’s responsibility, as outlined by Dickson, was to plot the course for achieving climate mitigation and adaptation benchmarks by compiling citizen-led expert advice focused on data and return on investment.

Two additional factors also influenced the ESB’s creation. One was the unprecedented streams of federal funding that became available for alternative energy programs as the result of President Joe Biden’s Infrastructure Bill and his Inflation Reduction Act. The town recently hired a grants administrator to help compete for those funds.

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The other came from a more sinister incident, the December 2022 attack on a Moore County electrical substation that left more than 40,000 customers without power for almost four days and killed an 87-year-old woman who relied on an oxygen machine to breathe.

As one of North Carolina’s 70-some electric cities — which purchase power from suppliers and resell it to municipal customers while maintaining their own infrastructure — town government has to respond when things go dark. In Western North Carolina, that happens mainly as the result of floods, ice and wind.

Bolstering grid resiliency was one of the first goals mentioned when the 12-person ESB first met on Oct. 13, 2023, even after a 2022 update to the town’s the town’s solar program that made small-scale energy generation somewhat more lucrative for homeowners.

Other priorities centering on energy, transportation and urban ecology promise more tangible strategies meant to sustain both the environment and the economy.

Monitoring tree canopy cover in urban environments, as some larger cities do, helps pinpoint areas where new trees can help prevent erosion, decrease energy costs and slow rainwater on its way into the town’s streets and sewers.

Encouraging pervious parking areas also help reduce runoff. The City of Raleigh offers a reimbursement program for qualifying businesses and homeowners who remove impervious surfaces in favor of the porous, rice cake-like surface.

Waynesville has an existing lighting ordinance that mentions light pollution, which disrupts wildlife and contributes to increased carbon dioxide generation by wasting energy. The ESB could investigate whether the ordinance is working, or if it can be strengthened.

Making the town safer for bike and pedestrian travel also lowers carbon emissions. Expanding the growing local network of EV chargers would so the same — even after accounting for the carbon emissions associated with generating the electricity that charges the vehicles, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

On Feb. 15, the ESB held a retreat at Lake Junaluska to incorporate these goals, as well as others, into a strategic plan.

“We’ve got folks with advanced degrees, futurists and folks who are very data-driven, so it really is a great group of people to have who care passionately about this subject. The point of the retreat was really just to try to flush out what our big areas of interest are,” said William Hite, a Waynesville resident and registered nurse at the Charles George VA in Asheville who’s been a strong advocate for residential solar generation. Hite serves as the ESB’s first board chair.  

Members of the ESB spent nearly six hours working to craft an aspirational mission and vision for the board, but they’ll have to make peace with constraints on their scope.

Keith Ray, a member of the ESB, cited electric school busses, like those in Cherokee, as an example. The school buses in Waynesville are operated by Haywood County Schools, so exploring alternatives would require collaboration across local governments.

They’ll also have to recognize their limitations as an advisory board. Made up of volunteers, the ESB can’t actually implement any of the mitigation strategies it chooses to explore, but it can make recommendations to Town Council. The ESB doesn’t have a budget, either, and must rely on Council’s approval of matching funds for any grants the ESB might pursue.

“We know that like small towns throughout the United States, we just don’t have a lot of money,” Hite said. “So we’re looking for the biggest bang for the buck, and that will guide us.”

The next meeting of the Town of Waynesville’s Environmental Sustainability Board is scheduled for Thursday, March 7.

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