Transition Network

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that our present economic and environmental state gives a sense of precariousness to life. If I stay in the present and I look at food, shelter, clothing, water, roads and police protection, it’s not so bad.  Despite many complaints about government over reach, it keeps my life pretty comfy. But I feel like I’m in the heart of a dry forest and grey smoke is wafting through the trees. At the same time budgets are tightening, extreme weather events are bringing increasing amounts of precipitation or none at all. In addition, global oil is becoming harder to find and more expensive to extract raising the cost of everything we have trucked in and every vehicle Madison County runs.

Before the housing slump, land in Madison County was being quickly swallowed by expansive growth. The big challenge at times of expansion, is curbing and directing growth with the least harm and greatest benefit. The county has some good first steps with smart growth planning. But our smart growth plans rose up out of time when we were still figuring out if the recession and global climate change were for certain. At that time, unscrupulous developers were the looming threat  to the future sustainability of the county. That threat hasn’t disappeared but, as we saw in the large precipitation events of the 2009 ice storm and the floods of May 2010, water treatment, utilities and roads can be quickly and critically damaged in a short period of time outpacing in time, breath and magnitude  any shoddy developer.

As in most communities in the U.S., we rely heavily on federal funds to rebuild when natural disaster strikes.  Earlier this month the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association released data that showed that there was a record 12 disasters in 2011 that recorded losses of over a billion dollars each. Could competition for these funds soon be getting stiff? We have been fortunate so far that our infrastructure remains solid but with federal budget deficits continually running deeper and with more extreme weather events stressing federal coffers, can Madison County continue to depend on federal and state governmental resources for infrastructure construction? Does Madison County government have the financial stability to deal with increased expenses related to increased fuel costs? Do citizens have the wealth to pay for the ever more expensive basics of life?  The growing numbers of families visiting local food pantries says that they do not.  Future planning needs to flexible enough to plan for the unexpected.

There is a movement to help communities deal with increasing threats from global climate change, economic instability and decreasing oil supplies. Transition Network offers resources and strategies to help communities develop a variety of tools that integrate more flexibility into how towns can respond to unexpected challenges. It recognizes that our communities have become overly dependent on resources that are subsidized by large governmental systems and come from multinational corporations 1000’s of miles away at the expense of local economies. As the supply chains of far away money and goods become increasingly threatened, local sourcing provides another layer of support. Note that it is not the elimination of currently used networking systems but a strengthening and growing of local ones. It rises up from citizens who work both independent of as well as in conjunction with local government.  Sustainable Berea  has already begun this work and its benefits are spreading throughout the county. Follow the link for more information.

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Culture of Sustainability

The harvest is in, cover crops are planted and bees are tucked in for the winter so I have time to focus again on this process of generating residential green building codes. Although I haven’t written in a while, I have continued conversations  with conventional  and green building contractors, plumbers, electricians, p.v. installers as well as green building advocates. No one thus far had read the National Association of Home Builders (N.A.H.B.) residential green building codes.  Furthermore, when I spoke to the “green” contractors, they could see no benefit (but likewise no harm) to their business. They were pretty much able to build and install what their customers asked for without much impediment from government entities. Green advocates were enthusiastic about residential green building codes but usually about how they could influence conventional builders.

When I spoke to conventional building contractors, they were more familiar with “Energy Star” recommendations than the N.A.H.B. guidelines and could see no benefit to incorporating additional green building methods beyond what “Energy Star” certification requires. Their reason is that they could not recoup  the extra costs that green building requires.

Madison County public officials have been vaguely interested in the idea of green codes especially if it could help sell new construction. Because Madison County is in an on-going housing slump, they were interested in green building as  a niche market that gives some new houses a more marketable appeal.

Kentucky has a statewide uniform mandatory building code, a.k.a. “mini/maxi” code,  that prevents local governments from adopting any regulations that exceed those required by the state.  This means that the county could not adopt the N.A.H.B. residential green building codes as mandatory for new housing unless the state had approved them first.

It seems to me that without enthusiasm from Madison County conventional or green builders, encouraging  green building guidelines in Madison County at this time could be counterproductive. Because of the vulnerable housing market, any perceived threat to the bottom line could build resentment from those who could best integrate more sustainable practices: the contractors.

Furthermore, Madison County is in the beginning stages of developing a culture of sustainability so sustainable practices are not yet seen as a common good like government supported clean drinking water or usable roads are. This disconnect between sustainability and the common good is evident in the recent ruling by the fiscal court to allow new building in a floodplain despite the county’s planning and building commission’s recommendation against it. Education is needed at all levels of county government as well as with citizens that sustainable development is not some passing utopian vision but a necessary change in thinking if this county is to prosper in the future. When this change comes about, residential green building codes will be a natural next step. But how does one change the culture?

In Berea, a culture of sustainability is on the rise. When the E.K.U. class presented their recommendations for sustainable planning for the area to the Berea City Council, most of the commissioners were well versed in the concepts they were proposing. In less than four days Berea Utilities customers voluntarily leased a 60 panel solar array in two panel increments to create a  solar farm. I imagine the non-profit “Sustainable Berea” and Berea College’s sustainability mission are large influences on the city’s education on sustainability but the steps of how Berians changed their thinking could be more closely examined. With some encouragement, their momentum could spread throughout Madison County.

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Meeting with Kent Clark, May 26, 2011

A subcommittee met with county judge executive, Kent Clark. Planning administrator, Duane Curry was also in attendance. Both were supportive of green building guidelines for Madison County and interested in seeing the National Association of Home Builders Green Building Guidelines. Mr. Clark expressed interest in seeing the Egret’s Cove and Curtis Pike intentional communities to learn more about cluster housing, small- scale shared infrastructure, green design and natural building techniques.

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April 28, 2011: E.K.U. Planning Students Presentation

GREEN CODES FOR MADISON COUNTY: FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS”
The Spring 2011 “GEO 325: Land Use and Environmental Planning” class at Eastern Kentucky University presented a set of recommended “Green Planning Codes” for Madison County that will promote such things as: alternative building technologies that reduce or eliminate energy use, water conservation and protection of waterways and riparian areas, and performance-based building and subdivision codes that will allow homeowners and builders to employ emerging and alternative building materials and other emerging sustainable living techniques. The class will finalize and  then deliver their recommendations to the Madison County Planning Office and our Green Building Codes group. As soon as I receive a copy, I’ll post it on the blog.

Madison County planning commisioner, Dr. Paula Maiochi and Berea mayor, Steve Connelly were in attendance. Mayor Connelly invited  the class  to present their recommendations at the next meeting of the Berea Planning Commission who are beginning work on their next comprehensive plan. Dr. Jones agreed. Mayor Connelly is looking in particular for a cut-and-paste, ready-to-go green plan.

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My Case Against Municipal Water

THE WATER COMPANY ARRIVES

Last fall, we saw our local water company plow down woods along our road, Curtis Pike, clearing a 20 foot swath of land to lay water main. We watched as the pipe snaked down across neighbors’ land until a cluster of trucks loaded with pipe came to our driveway. In their hand was an easement for us to sign to give permission to cut through our woods. Presently, we do not have municipal water so you may say that’s a great thing; sign the easement and you will now have access to an abundance of clean water: all you want, any time. But of course, it’s more complicated than that.

MUNICIPAL WATER IS NOT BAD

I first came to Kentucky in the late 1980’s living among the coal fields of the mountains of Floyd County. Most waterways there were clotted with trash, streams sometimes ran orange and oily, pipes ran straight from toilets to the creek, and wells ran dry or became contaminated from coal mining. The fortunate had access to municipal water or yet untainted wells. The others learned to tolerate the dirtied water or bought water from the store but not in the beverage aisle as is common today. It was among the household cleaners next to the mops and sponges; a jug of distilled water kept there for clothes’ irons. We were not a bottled water culture then. To me, as to most city dwelling people of my generation, paying money for grocery store water seemed as ridiculous as buying bottled air. It was an unquestioned assumption that clean water always abundantly flowed from the tap. Turning on an Eastern Kentucky faucet and having brown, sulfur fuming water run out was a shocking revelation. So, I get it. I understand how necessary municipal water can be.

BUT IT HAS ITS PROBLEMS

 When your primary water sources are being fouled by mining and raw sewage, municipal water and sewer makes sense. But given other choices, municipally treated water is not necessarily the better. Let’s take a look at the water that flows from most taps in Madison County.

The county draws its water from the Kentucky River whose headwaters are in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky with all the mining run-off, industrial waste discharge, agriculture run-off and faulty septic systems. According to the Kentucky Division of Water, there are hundreds of contaminants  found in Kentucky’s waterways each year. Many contaminants are filtered out but there is a growing list of those that find their way past the treatment plant and into our household water. The Environmental Protection Agency lists dozens found in municipal drinking water that include not only chemicals from residential and industrial wastewater but also a whole host of pharmaceutical drugs as well.

Not only is our drinking water polluted by toxins in run-off and wastewater but they can be tainted by the water treatment itself. Chlorine and other chemicals used for treatment can break down to chlorate, bromate, chlorine dioxide and others.  According to the E.P.A., over-exposure to water treatment disinfectants and their by-products can cause cancer, anemia, blood disorders, reproductive difficulties or damage to the nervous system, liver or kidneys.

Besides the host of chemicals needed to treat groundwater, it also takes a notable amount of electricity to supply, purify, distribute and treat water and wastewater. According to  data from a 2006 report for the U.S. Department of Energy, nearly 2 percent of the total U.S. power generated or 58 million Mgwh is needed to supply public water and waste water treatment.(U.S. Department of Energy“Water Demands of Energy Resources”) In Madison County, we get our electricity from coal-fired plants whose by-products in both the mining (heavy metals) and burning processes (acid rain, mercury) pollute our waterways. Isn’t it ironic that in order to make water from the Kentucky River safe for drinking using chemicals and coal-fired electricity, we must also contaminate it?

NOW CONSIDER OUR WATER SUPPLY

We collect rain water off our roofs into 1500 gallon cisterns. The bulk of possible contaminants from the air (largely from coal-fired power plants) and roof are most concentrated in the first several gallons of rainfall and these are directed away from our water storage. We twice filter the collected water before we use it for cooking and drinking. The waste water from our sinks and shower is used to water our food gardens.  We do not have flush toilets but compost our humanure instead. By conserving and recycling water we limit our household water use to just 30 gallons of water a day and about 40 if you add our clothes washing in our community house. Madison County Health Department estimates that a household our size uses an average of ten times that amount at around 480 gallons per day.

For most of the year, our water supply is ample. But for the past several years, we have hit some real dry spells during the late summer and early fall enduring weeks without rain. We need about an inch of rain every 3 weeks to keep us supplied with enough water for cooking, drinking and washing so a month or more without significant rainfall depletes even a water conserving household’s supply. We addressed the shortage by installing three 2000 gallon cisterns that collect water off our barn roof. We now have a back-up supply for next year’s dry times as well as a reserve of water for fire protection.

Like those who are on municipal water, through rainwater collection, we, too, have an abundance of clean water: all we need, any time. In our situation there is no personal or public health advantage or personal convenience to municipal water. Municipal water, for us, only has disadvantages: exposure to a host of chemicals and increased burning of fossil fuels.

MUNICIPAL WATER THREATENS FORESTED WOODLAND

When we planned our intentional community, we designated areas that would be disturbed and areas that would not. In the disturbed zone, we clustered our houses around our common house and barn, placing gardens and recreation areas in the area as well. Fruit trees and vegetable gardens are watered by our waste wash water in two greywater gardens. About three acres are forested hillside and we reforested two more acres of pasture. We planted the trees as a carbon offset to our new buildings, to establish a natural habitat for wildlife, and for harvesting firewood. We have been carefully tending the reforested areas, regularly mowing weeds that can choke out the slow-growing oaks. Just this summer, the faster growing locust and poplar have established themselves enough to nurse along their smaller, slower growing neighbors and we no longer had to mow.

When Kirksville Water Association asked for an easement through the established forest on the hillside, we asked if there was an alternative. There was. They could run the main line on the already disturbed area along the county road easement. It was just easier and faster to cut a straight line through our woods rather than following the curve of the road. So, denying them an easement came easily because there was a good substitute that satisfied the community’s need. Not only did it spare our woods but it also re-graded the roadside drainage ditch that had a tendency to overflow in a heavy rain.

OUR DILEMMA

  Once the main line was in, two of our neighbors approached us about running household water lines across our land using their access easement that crossed both the established and newly forested areas. This presented us with a much more difficult moral and ethical struggle. Our neighbors had good reason to want municipal water. Although they did their best to conserve, they still needed to spend half a day each week transporting water by pickup truck to meet their household needs. A year ago, they hired a drilling company to dig a well but never hit water. Making a fuss about them using the easement could appear we were stubbornly denying them a basic need.

We prayed and discussed this at length. Were we imposing our “high ideals” on our neighbors? We firmly believe open access to clean water is a basic human right but, through rain water collection, we all have open access. The real difference is access to an ample supply. Our biggest water savers, composting toilets,  take a substantial amount of commitment and without them, it would be difficult for our neighbors to get by on rainwater collection alone.

We also wondered if the mere presence of municipal water on our land could, in the future, lead to us being required to hook onto municipal utilities as well. Since we had allowed the land to be disturbed would it be difficult to later argue a case that we have a standing practice of preservation of undisturbed land?  If we were forced to hook into municipal sewer, as is the requirement for northern Madison County, we would lose our greywater garden and the flush toilet waiver that is dependent on it. Our orchard and vegetable gardens would lose their regular irrigation of water and nutrients that organic waste water provides and our ability to produce food would be threatened.

And of course there was our relationship to the trees, the sentinels of the old forest and the babes of the new woods, and their importance to the soil stabilization, water filtration and struggling ecosystem of that hillside. The only way to get water up to their houses would be to plow through these protected areas

Luckily, this ends well. We managed to negotiate a compromise when we included a third neighbor that had just built a new house along the back of our and our neighbor’s land. The three neighbors agreed to share costs and run their water lines together through a much smaller swath of forest and across our neighbor’s pasture. Most of the line ran through already disturbed land, the new forest was protected and there was one cut through the woods rather than three.

IF NOT MUNICIPAL WATER AND WASTEWATER TREATMENT, THEN WHAT?

For water conserving households like ours, a cistern serves all our water needs but, as with our neighbors, it’s difficult to supply an entire household with multiple flush toilets with rainwater alone. If rainwater can not be the entire water supply, it could satisfy some of the household water needs. A 2000 gallon cistern easily fits under a porch and could supply some or all of the water needed to flush toilets.  To encourage rainwater harvesting the city of  Portland, Oregon has developed  a permit for flushing toilets in homes or businesses with collected rainwater.  Think of the savings of water, electricity and cost to the taxpayer if housing in new developments integrated cisterns.

Wastewater treatment options in Madison County seem to be either failing packaging plants, failing septic systems or new municipal waste water treatment plants. The National Environment Services Center at West Virginia University offers many more viable alternatives. They are a dedicated research institute that has a vast database on alternative treatment options especially for sparsely populated rural areas such as ours. Once again, by encouraging new developments to incorporate properly maintained and monitored on-site, cluster and neighborhood systems, the county and its taxpayers can reap environmental and financial savings.

AS WE PONDER GREEN BUILDING CODES

In Madison County, we must consider the environmental impact of water treatment. There are many good alternatives to large, expensive centralized systems that provide access to enough clean water to satisfy homeowners needs. The groundwork has been laid by other municipalities and there are many helpful organizations to make it easy for both the homeowner and county officials to adopt these technologies. With little effort, implementing alternative water treatment technologies will reap benefits to our environment, to our health and our pocketbooks. As we consider developing a residential green building code, sustainable water management must be a key component.

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January 20, 2011: Meeting with EKU Class

The Spring 2011 “GEO 325: Land Use and Environmental Planning” class at Eastern Kentucky University will be working with our community group and the Madison County Planning Commission to develop a set of recommended “Green Planning Codes” that will promote such things as:

  • alternative building technologies that reduce or eliminate energy use. promote water conservation and protection, reduce wastewater generation and stormwater runoff, and employ reclaimed or innovative building materials
  • pedestrian and bicycle transport
  • development of appropriate-scale alternative energy such as solar panels, wind power, and geothermal power for both residential and commercial uses
  • local food production and farmland preservation
  • conservation and preservation of greenspaces
  • protection of waterways and riparian areas

 

We presented on overview of the history of our group to the class and gave them the provisions we hoped would be integrated into a final version of green building codes for Madison County. The wish list includes:

  1. An encouragement of collaboration:
    1. Between government regulators and the people it most directly affects. For example, a provision for experimental building where codes’ enforcement might allow alternative building practices in exchange for sharing data on the viability of this technique in Madison County.
    2. Between neighbors who want to share common resources like small scale energy production (shared photovoltaic system) and waste water treatment (shared wetlands).
  2. Codes would be outcome based. For example, a subdivision development must maintain or develop “x” percentage of carbon carrying capacity per acre of land and/or it must protect waterways and create riparian barriers up to “y” standards.
  3. Incentivize green development rather than making it difficult. For example, having a green building scoring system where builders who obtain a high score are allowed fee and/or other code exemptions.
  4.  Provisions for experimentation. ( For example, an experimental green building code might meet International Green Codes rather than having to use specific building products or techniques ie: looking at the efficiency of the entire thermal envelope rather than having to place insulation that meets specific R values in specific places).
  5. On-site sourcing of water (rain water collections in cisterns), waste water (compost toilets and greywater garden) and electricity (photovoltaic system).
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January 10, 2011 Meeting

In attendance: Dick Futrell, John Capillo, Jack Keifer, Rob Weise, Margie Stelzer

1. We went over the outcome of our December 6 meeting with County Planning Administrator, Duane Curry. Discussion about wastewater treatment in Madison County, the inappropriate use of septic systems in a karst region and Richmond’s sewage packaging plants that are regularly overloaded and dumping untreated sewage into local creeks

2. John, Dick and Margie volunteered to present a citizen’s perspective of residential green building codes to Alice Jone’s Land Use Planning class on January 20th.

3. John, Dick and Margie volunteered to arrange a meeting with County Judge Executive, Kent Clark to introduce our work on green residential building codes and to possibly arrange a presentation to the fiscal court. John will talk to Craig Williams about coordinating efforts with the Kentucky Environmental Fund (K.E.F.)

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