Westchester County, neighboring New York City, doesn't seem like the most likely area to be at the head of environmental reform. As the second richest county in the Empire State (the first is Manhattan), its stereotype lies more along the lines of Wall Street execs' Suburbans hauling one child apiece to soccer practice. Thanks to county executive Andy Spano, Westchester has become a state leader of Earth-friendly policy.
Mr. Spano, who has been in office since 1997 and faces re-election in the fall, has long worked to preserve open space, protecting over 2,300 acres of land to date. One such purchase was the Hilltop Hanover Farm in Yorktown, which serves to educate the public on sustainable farming. Owing to Westchester's location along the heart of the Hudson, water quality has also been at the forefront of his agenda for some time now. Dirty wetlands and streams have been restored, and new storm drain practices and sanitary codes prevent hazardous overflow. Currently, the four Long Island Sound Wastewater Treatment Plants are being upgraded, with the intention of removing nitrogen from the Sound.
Following in the checklist of environmental issues, recycling has been amply supported. Participation has been at or above 40 percent while Mr. Spano has been in office, and the items picked up has been expanded to include organic yard waste, used tires and hazardous waste. The government even refurbishes or recycles all its old computers.
On to transportation: he rerouted the county bus line and instituted programs to encourage employees to carpool. My favorite initiative is Mr. Spano's Veggie Van, which runs on recycled vegetable oil from Westchester restaurants. The van travels to local schools and community events to educate on renewable energy and sustainable practices. (And emits the tasty aroma of French fries, but that's an unintended perk.)
But no environmentalist could be named such without addressing the mother of all environmental issues: global warming. It is in Andy Spano's response to climate change that I have gained the greatest respect for him.
In 2006, Mr. Spano created the Westchester Global Warming Task Force, which I wrote about in an earlier blog post. The Task Force, living up to its superhero-quality name, updated a greenhouse gas inventory of the county, developed a (whopping 100+ page) sustainable development plan for Westchester, including goals for individuals and all sectors of society, and monitored and assisted in the plan's implementation. The Action Plan is detailed and exceedingly useful, to say the least -- we used it when designing energy efficiency improvements at my school. The Task Force set a 20 percent greenhouse gas reduction target by 2015, increasing to 80 percent by 2050.
Fulfilling the government's responsibilities under the plan, high efficiency lighting has been installed in all government buildings and energy retrofits are being completed across the county. All new equipment has to conform to the highest efficiency rating, and any new government vehicle purchased must be a hybrid and buses low-sulfur. The use of pesticides has been completely phased out, and green cleaning products are required in all facilities. In 2008, following an updated Action Plan, Mr. Spano founded County Climate Change Advisory Council to replace the Task Force, which had completed its duties.
Mr. Spano's leadership has paid off. He's won by significant margins in the last three elections (1997, 2001 and 2005) and is looking strong for 2009. The effectiveness of all his initiatives arises from the integration of the numerous stakeholders in environmental issues. The Task Force, for example, included over 40 members from government, education, business, and faith and environmental organizations. ICLEI, an organization of local governments for sustainability, further named Andy Spano as the Northeast representative in its Board of Directors.
I can't help but feel Westchester's stereotype changing from Suburbans to Priuses.