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Cherry Hill Moves towards Sustainability

Written by The Philadelphia Inquirer
Published: September 16, 2008

By Cynthia Henry

Inquirer Staff Writer
Cherry Hill envisions its township building as becoming the poster child for energy efficiency and sustainability.

There will be solar panels to provide electricity; rain barrels to collect free water; fuel-conserving vehicles in the parking lot; and heat, air-conditioning and lighting upgrades, plus a recently enlarged recycling program.

"Everything we do here can be done at home," said Dan Keashen, spokesman for Mayor Bernie Platt. "The best part is, it's a cost-saving measure: It makes the taxpayers' money go further."

But to implement Platt's green ideals on a larger scale takes partners, said Athena Sarafides, the state Department of Environmental Protection's sustainable-communities coordinator. "You need leadership, vision and community participation."

That's where Sustainable Cherry Hill comes in.

"One town can do a lot. We have 70,000 people here," said Lori Braunstein, chairwoman of the new 300-member organization. "We can reinvent and re-create how we do things."

Governing sustainability - meeting current residents' needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs - spans disciplines from waste management to greenhouse-gas reduction.

"Every decision we make on a daily basis can be viewed through a lens of sustainability," said Braunstein, who sent recycled-paper invitations and discouraged gift wrap at her son's bar mitzvah last week.

Sustainable Cherry Hill grew out of Platt's 10-point Green Action Plan, adopted in March. Now an independent nonprofit, its task forces meet with the school district, businesses and the religious community. Similar groups raise consciousness in Maplewood, Lawrence, Highland Park and Belmar.

Aiming for sustainability is "not realistic to do on your own, and it's not realistic without government," said Braunstein, who, like her husband Elliot, is a Cherry Hill native.

The township's Green Action goals included reducing energy costs and improving the fuel-efficiency of township vehicles.

The most popular initiative has been the introduction of Recyclebank, an incentive-based residential program that has nearly doubled the town's recycling rate to around 90 percent participation. Based on the weight of their recycling bins, residents are awarded points by Recyclebank toward vouchers redeemable at participating stores. The township estimates it will save $400,000 a year in landfill fees, enough to offset the cost of doing business with the company.

Now Cherry Hill is negotiating an $800,000 deal to have solar panels installed atop the municipal building, a project it hopes will shave $5,000 off the building's $8,000 monthly electric bill. A federal grant would pick up $300,000 of the tab and the state would rebate $280,000 of the installation cost.

The township plans to pay the balance by selling solar credits to electric suppliers, who are required by state law to invest in renewable energy, operations manager Ari Messinger said.

Improvements in lighting and gradual replacement of the building's 30-year-old furnace and air conditioner should further reduce utility bills, Messinger said.

After suggesting that the township's lawn could be watered with rain caught in barrels - an idea that came up at Sustainable Cherry Hill's inaugural town meeting, in July - the group notched another grassroots victory this summer when it persuaded the council to pass a "no-idling" resolution.

Respiratory therapist Mike Richter and Girl Scout Shelby Robbins, both of Cherry Hill, were frustrated that a 20-year-old state law that prohibits idling by most vehicles was being ignored. Sustainable Cherry Hill arranged meetings where the two made their case, and a resolution passed July 28.

"Children are at tailpipe level, and they may have asthma or other breathing diseases," said Shelby, 10, a fifth grader at Bret Harte School. "It's bad for the environment. It pollutes the air. It wastes gas." Shelby's interest in "Idle Free" began as a school project in the spring.

The law carries a fine of up to $250 for idling more than three minutes, but the township will likely focus on educational efforts rather than enforcement, Dan Keashen, the mayor's spokesman, said. The DEP briefed township public works, police and fire employees this month, and the township plans to work through schools to educate bus drivers and parents waiting to pick up students.

"Most people aren't aware of the law," said Jennifer Kelley, mayoral liaison to Sustainable Cherry Hill. "If you can get them to think twice, that's half the battle."

Sustainable Cherry Hill is modeling itself on Sustainable Lawrence, in Mercer County, which began in 2005. Like that group, Sustainable Cherry Hill plans to set its agenda based on a professionally moderated, all-day "futures" seminar in the spring that will bring together stakeholders from government, business, neighborhoods and the religious community.

Sustainable Lawrence's executive director, Ralph Copleman, attributes his group's success to a diverse buy-in.

"There are many, many ways to do this," he said. "And Cherry Hill is twice the size as Lawrence. . . . If I were in Cherry Hill, I'd be very hopeful."

Sustainable Lawrence has helped three schools start organic gardens in outdoor classrooms. About 500 people attended a green building seminar held by the group and speakers continually educate community groups.

Sustainable Cherry Hill hopes to sponsor at least one event a month, mixing education with fun. Topics include improving business supply lines and "greening" the holidays.

Some days, Braunstein said, she feels like a "fly in front of a bulldozer" because most people have not bought into the sustainability movement yet.

But other days, she's heartened by the small behavioral changes she observes.

"The key is not to make people feel bad about where they are," she said. "Nobody is going to change their behavior because someone told them to."

Read the full article on The Philadelphia Inquirer's website now

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