Eagle County: Hybrids and paperless offices
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” What is it, exactly, that makes Eagle County, Colorado such a great place to live?
Of course there are obvious answers ” breathtaking scenery, world class skiing, active and involved citizens, small town character. But for the employees of Eagle County, actually defining the nuts and bolts that combine to make up the area’s quality of life has become a more formal effort. Eagle County’s study has culminated with a report called Sustainable Communities 2010.
According to Yuri Kostick, sustainability coordinator for Eagle County, the effort is an attempt to look at the valley holistically. “We need to understand, as a community, that what happens upstream affects what happens downstream,” he says.
The Sustainable Communities 2010 seeks to provide local decision makers quantifiable “quality of life” data and information. The report also outlines suggested tools to protect quality of life and assist with public policy decisions throughout the county.
“The purpose of Sustainable Communities 2010 is to first quantify residents’ needs and levels of service, then recommend solutions to ensure impacts associated with growth are mitigated and adequate services are provided to meet the demands of the population,” says acting Eagle County Manager Keith Montag. “Sustainable Communities 2010 comprehensively considers the economic, social and environmental challenges that arise from growth.”
Montag credited feedback from a county survey completed last summer with launching the Sustainable Communities 2010 exercise. Based on those results, county residents identified the following “threats” to their quality of life:
– Growth and land use
– Transportation and traffic congestion
– Affordable housing and cost of living
– Environmental protection
– Services such as health care, child care and senior care
With the concerns thus identified, the county set out to define current service levels and the service level goal. The report outlines the gap existing between the two and sets out methods and associated costs to close it. It then lays out specific strategies to protect identified quality of life factors.
And then came time for the county to walk its talk and meet the standards it sets for others.
“We adopted ECO-Build regulations, but you know, the county builds stuff, too,” says Kostick. “So when we build stuff, it better be in an environmentally sensitive manner.”
Because the focus on sustainability is a new initiative and it can mean extra expense in a tight economy, it can be unpopular, Kostick added. For example, the county’s decision to landscape the administration building in Eagle with plants that use less water was harshly criticized by some members of the community. “I think that project was completely justified, especially because it’s an opportunity to educate people,” Kostick says.
Following are some examples of the county’s sustainable talk put into practice.
Skeptics’ eyebrows definitely raised nearly two years ago when Eagle County added 20 hybrid sedans to its motor vehicle fleet.
Then the price of gas started going up, and those eyebrows started coming down” particularly when the price of gas hit more than $4 a gallon last summer.
In normal driving conditions, the fuel-efficient cars run on the electric motor, assisted by the gasoline engine as needed. For example, when slowing, the gas engine shuts off and the electric motor coverts momentum into electricity, storing it in the battery. When the Prius comes to a stop, its gasoline engine shuts off, conserving fuel and reducing emissions.
Now, 21 months into the Toyota Prius program, the county estimates those hybrid vehicles use 175 percent less gas than the sports utility vehicles that they replaced. The old cars averaged 18 miles per gallon of gas. The Prius’ average 49.58 miles to the gallon.
County Fleet Manager Gusty Kanakis estimates that when the price of gas is at $3.59 a gallon, the savings in fuel alone amounts to $46,670 annually. And, he notes, there’s benefits beyond the cost of gas.
“Whenever you’re using less fuel, you’re being environmentally friendly,” says Kanakis.
The purchase of the distinctive, light green-colored hybrid cars is probably the most visible of aspect of the county’s “ECO-Green” initiative, intended to promote environmental stewardship.
The 20 Prius cars, which make up about half of the county’s light vehicle fleet, were purchased at a an original cost of $23,897 each. A few months later, the county successfully obtained rebates of $3,013 per vehicle through the Colorado Department of Revenue’s alternative fuel income tax credit program. The hybrids placed 15 SUV vehicles and five Dodge Intrepids, some of which were scheduled for regular replacement. (The county’s police is to replace cars once they accumulate 112,000 miles.)
Kanakis says the county’s motor pool mechanics considered the new vehicles a new sort of challenge.
“They were not at all discouraged by it. In fact, they were looking forward to working on those cars,” he says.
Ed Smith, an appraiser for the Eagle County Assessor’s Office, has driven the Prius’ around the county and over the passes to meetings in Denver.
“It goes over the passes great. I was amazed. It goes faster than my car,” he say, “They seem to be working out well.”
The county plans to continuing replacing aging cars in its fleets with hybrids, when budget permits. In fact, the county hopes to use stimulus package funds to replace four Jeep Cherokees with hybrids this year.
“We’ll continue to add hybrids to the fleet. This isn’t a one-time shot,” says Kanakis.
Two years ago, Eagle County adopted its ECO-Build regulations, designed to encourage energy-efficient, environmentally friendly building practices.
In a nutshell, the code sets up a point system that gives builders credits for using recycled building materials, installing energy efficient heating systems, accessibility to mass transit or incorporating solar energy into a project. It’s a cash-in lieu sort of program: If the project falls short of the required number of points, the builder must literally pay the price to obtain a building permit.
On the other hand, projects that exceed the ECO -Build point requirements earn back 25 percent of their building permit fees.
“We’ve pushed these regulations, but in general the builders have responded … very few new projects don’t meet the points,” says Adam Palmer, a planner for the Eagle County Community Development Department. He notes that most builders are willing to focus on energy efficiency, making a point of using good windows and insulation.
During the past couple of years, the ECO-Build point policy has generated $160,000 for the ECO-Build fund. Palmer estimates that 80 percent of those funds come from fees for snowmelt systems and hot tubs in the county’s high-end subdivisions.
However, that money isn’t just sitting in the county coffers. Rather, through a community grant program, the funds have been pumped back into the community. The county handed out $115,000 in 2008 through a grant program offering rebates to homeowners and businesses installing solar power and thermal systems to new or existing homes. That money assisted in the construction of 34 new solar systems totaling a combined 73 kilowatts of local clean, renewable energy.
The funds were also used to help homeowners upgrade insulation in existing homes, and reward builders whose new projects exceeded the ECO-Build regulations. ECO-Build money was also used to help Habitat for Humanity achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification on the Fox Hollow housing project in Edwards.
Steve Isom has been involved in private sector development projects in the county since 1979. Prior to that, he spent a couple of years working for the Eagle County Planning Department.
One of the most recent projects, which he steered through the ECO-Build regulations, was Shadowrock, a 100-unit townhome development in El Jebel. After some initial challenges, that project qualified for enough ECO-Build points to get the 25 percent permit fee rebate.
He sees some pitfalls in the ECO-Build requirements. For example, he says meeting the regulations might cost a homebuilder an extra $25,000. If all the energy efficiency measures would result in, say, a $1,000 annual savings in electricity ” that’s still a 25-year payback.
Isom says the system probably works well for high end-real estate.
“It is well worth it for people who can afford it … but it is going to be difficult when the first guy comes in with an affordable housing project who is trying to meet all of the ECO-Build requirements,” he warns.
Palmer, however, says there is a sort of sliding scale incorporated into the green regulations, which requires fewer “points” when a structure is 2,000 square feet or less, while still encouraging energy efficiency.
“Such energy efficiency could be incorporated into a project without significantly increasing the cost of construction,” says Palmer, who says the additional costs would pay for themselves in five years or less.
Still, as planner who has worked in both the public and private sector, Isom says regulations that encourage energy efficiency are definitely the way the industry is headed.
“I think people realize that oil is a finite quantity. Going to high-efficiency building is very cost-effective if it is designed in initially,” he says.
Meanwhile, the county is preparing a request for proposals for a large solar farm at the county landfill. There are also ongoing projects retrofitting county facilities for greater energy efficiency.
“We want to be involved in real projects that are making a difference,” says Palmer.
For a guy with a desk job, Eagle County Assessor Mark Chapin isn’t all that fond of paper. He cringes a bit when he has to go into the file room, a narrow passage in the county administration building that is absolutely packed with thousands of files folders containing tons of paper records.
Since Chapin took office two years ago, his goal has been to eventually have a paperless operation. His staff avoids creating hard copies of documents when electronic data can suffice. When time permits, assessor’s office employees use a new computer system to scan documents and create electronic records.
“The goal is to eliminate all of those files,” says Chapin, gesturing toward the file room.
His office is not only saving space, but is also saving money on paper costs.
The assessor’s office is always going green with its water system. Chapin admits he was never at ease with a system that required large jugs of bottled water.
“It’s not sustainable. A big truck is need to haul in the water in the plastic bottles,” he notes. So he cut the bottled water form the department budget, and installed a water filtering machine in its place. The employees simply refill their cups with water.
“The cost savings are fairly significant. And the end result is we are cutting back on those types of things so we can help the environment,” says Chapin.
His next project: Establishing a collection point for employees who want properly discard of items such as cell phone batteries.
Even though the Sustainable Communities 2010 is only months old, parts of the plan already look dated.
After all, planning for rapid growth isn’t as much of a priority when the national economy tanks.
But from the start, the report recognized “World Economic Drivers” as the primary force in determining local quality of life issues. That factor sits atop the organizational chart that outlines public policy decision making.
“There’s no escaping from thinking about the economy right now,” says Kostick, the county’s sustainability coordinator. “I think Sustainable Communities 2010 does fit in.”
Today, job loss is a bigger threat than rampant growth but the focus remains the same, he said.
Acting Eagle County Manager Keith Montag adds that focusing on quality of life helps governments make funding decisions in tough economic times. The times may also present opportunities.
“We are continuing to focus on affordable housing issues in Eagle County. Now is probably a good time to move forward,” says Montag, noting that land and construction costs are dropping, making such projects more attainable.
And, he added, when the county launches its own projects ” such as the current Eagle County Justice Center ” it needs to think about sustainability and hire as many local workers as possible.
“We want to employ our local work force to the best of our ability,” says Montag.