Portage County has no climate action plan, but some residents want to change that

Photo by C. G.

Local environmentalists are pushing Portage County commissioners to adopt a countywide climate action plan, but it may be an uphill battle.

Kent City Council recently adopted a climate action plan, laying out steps to help contribute to reducing global emissions and inspiring local architect Rick Hawksley to urge the Portage County government to follow suit.

Hawksley, who specializes in historic preservation and has worked on multiple public projects, offered to make a formal presentation. The commissioners declined the offer and invited him to speak during time allotted for public comment. Instead, he wrote them a letter.

“We are in the midst of an unprecedented climate crisis,” he wrote. “This crisis has already begun to have significant impacts and threatens to permanently modify the earth’s ecosystem in ways that will have devastating health, social, ecological, and economic effects.”

Commissioners Sabrina Christian-Bennett and Mike Tinlin say they are open to at least discussing such a plan, but Commissioner Tony Badalamenti isn’t so sure. 

“I’ve seen climate action plans from multiple places throughout the country,” Badalamenti said. “I’m not in favor of that. I haven’t seen anybody fulfill a climate change action plan that had any substance to it at all. To me, it’s a feel-good process that people do. You can make these thoughts, and people can say, ‘Oh, we’ll do that,’ then really I haven’t seen any of them make much sense at all on things they would like to have versus the reality of what can be done.”

Having read Kent’s plan, which he deemed “well put together and well-presented,” Tinlin said he would have “no problem” looking into a countywide CAP.

However, Tinlin noted he is only one of three commissioners; two are needed to enact any legislation.

Christian-Bennett said she is open to meeting with Hawksley as soon as he reaches out to her for an appointment.

“At least that’s somewhere to start. It’s their agenda, ultimately. It’s an urgent crisis we’re facing and we don’t seem to be taking it seriously at all,” Hawksley said.

A former Kent city councilman who later lost a literal coin toss to Mayor Jerry Fiala for that post, Hawksley said he knows when public policy is needed, and how it is crafted. Commissioners need to openly discuss implementing a climate action plan, not to listen without comment during the public comment portion of meetings, he said.

A CAP would save the county money over time, but Hawksley said he was initially told there is no money to create one.

The Kent Climate Action Plan, adopted April 17, contains initiatives focused on reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Implementing the plan, its creators say, will provide “economic and financial benefits to our city, and a healthier environment, with improved quality of life for those living, working, and playing in Kent.”

Contributing to the plan were representatives from the Portage County Solid Waste Management District, Kent State, Kent schools, NOPEC, and the Kent Area Chamber of Commerce.

According to the study, Kent should pursue large-scale energy savings performance contracts, LED transitions for municipal lighting, creation of an energy efficiency revolving fund and energy efficiency procurement policies, and should ensure that Kent’s power grid can withstand climate impacts.

Kent should pass a local ordinance encouraging large building owners to set energy reduction goals and to display their progress on a public “dashboard,” the plan says. City leaders should lobby state lawmakers to regularly update energy codes that would reduce building energy usage, and by extension, greenhouse gas emissions.

The city should expand its use of solar energy, increase its electric vehicle infrastructure, enhance hike- and bike-ways, and follow KSU’s lead in creating a community anaerobic composting system. Waste haulers should be required to use low-emission vehicles. Planting more trees would enable the city to provide urban tree credits, also known as carbon credits, to companies or organizations that want to offset carbon emissions they cannot reduce by other means.

Most of all, energy education, or understanding the nature and role of energy in our lives, must be enhanced, the plan states. Armed with energy literacy, people would be able to explore new ways to reduce wasteful energy use, use energy more efficiently, and even reduce energy use altogether.

Hawksley isn’t the only person pushing for broader adoption of local climate plans. Renee Ruchotzke, president of the Kent Environmental Council, said Portage County needs one, too.

“It’s important for governmental agencies to put our intentions into policy so we can guide future decision making according to a well thought out direction and plan,” she said.

KEC has submitted dozens of suggested revisions to the Portage County Regional Planning Commission’s comprehensive land use plan, including concerns about preserving wetlands and maintaining the county’s rural nature, she said.

For now, KEC and other township, city, and village groups, as well as the League of Women Voters, are waiting to see how the planning commission incorporates the changes, Ruchotzke said.

Dawn Collins, director of the Portage County Solid Waste Management District, helped craft Kent’s climate action plan. Most such plans are enacted at the municipality level, but the county commissioners could certainly encourage that activity, she said.

City leaders in search of grants for green initiatives may count on her support, she added.

But any plan would by definition be adapted for local needs and limitations. Collins, who oversees a fleet of waste haulers, said it would be impossible with current technology to electrify them.

“Ohio does not have EV trucks. They do not work in our climate,” Collins said. “We tried the hybrids five years ago, and they failed. It was a very costly investment. Electric is still being tested for refuse trucks. Portage County is pretty rural, batteries don’t tend to go that far, and they don’t tend to like cold weather that much.”

Citing the recycling district’s monthly $300 electric bill, Collins said the recycling center does not use a great deal of energy. The facility just gained new windows, which helped even more, she said.

Noting that her focus is diverting material from landfills, Collins pointed to numerous programs the recycling center added in the past year: scrap metal, food composting, yard composting, latex paint, hazardous waste, tires, motor oil and antifreeze, and battery recycling.

Deteriorating maintenance building

Hawksley also asked the commissioners to repair the county-owned maintenance building, located on Meridian Road in Ravenna, just by the county administration building.

“I have come to the county building many times … and am continually baffled by the lack of maintenance of the most visible side of the building,” he stated, and provided photographs he said “demonstrate the need for you to do something about this.”

Hawlsley offered to provide suggestions, and said “the conditions speak for themselves” if the commissioners would only take a hard look.

The pictures show peeling paint on boarded up windows that face the maintenance building parking lot, deteriorating concrete on the edge of a sidewalk that lines the building, deteriorating framework on a seemingly nonfunctional entrance point, and handicap parking placards posted outside a door that lacks ramps and even a doorknob.

Repairing the maintenance building is on the county’s to-do list, but cash flow is an ever-present issue, Tinlin said.

“As soon as we have the ability to deal with that, that’s going to be dealt with. It shouldn’t be too long. That’s going to be dressed up, and it will look nice,” he said.

Hawkley called it “ironic” that the maintenance building is the structure most in need of maintenance.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.