Interview with Lawrence Township Manager Richard Krawczun
on Sustainability Topics Affecting Municipal Government
Interviewed by Rebecca Gallagher, Sustainable Lawrence summer intern, August, 2007.
RG: What has Lawrence Township’s administration been doing recently that may have gone unnoticed/unacknowledged in the area of ecological sustainability?
RK: Three things come to mind. First, Township Council has amended the ordinance to lessen the cost for homeowners and small businesses that are seeking to install solar energy. It had become very expensive in terms of municipal fees to put in solar panels because even though the cost was being subsidized by a rebate, that doesn’t come off the actual cost of the project. So the council passed an ordinance to lower those fees to a level comparable with fees for other kinds of energy installations.
The Council also adopted a resolution to adopt standards that are not 100% the same as Kyoto Accord, but in support of issues of sustainability, issues of being proactive toward the use of reduced emissions by the Township.
Third, something that’s actually been going for a long time is our large, municipal compost facility for brush, leaves, and other yard debris. We recycle those for compost for use by both landscapers and residents. It’s actually a three-town project. We do it in cooperation with Princeton Boro and Princeton. The facility is located on Princeton Pike in Lawrence Township.
RG: Do you feel like there has been significant response to the composting “thing”?
RK: Oh there is a very big response to that. In the last few years we’ve been expanding operations because we keep bringing in more material.
RG: What’s happening in the area of storm water management as it relates to development?
RK: Probably now our biggest issue is storm water management. State regulations require certain mitigation to reduce the amount of rainwater displaced by development. They focus on underground retention basins, to recharge the ground. Detention basins are also supposed to allow percolation into the soil and operate to a standard actually set into the design so that water doesn’t run off.
As for building design, right now we do not have a set of standards that require building design to be environmentally friendly. But we do have an ordinance requiring a large project such as the upcoming Quaker Bridge Mall reconstruction to include environmental assessment that will show types of energy savings, water savings, and use of building mats. We can examine the life cycling cost of these efforts that and identify needed improvements. But we have not yet adopted green building requirements or LEED certification.
RG: I know LEED certification can seem excessively stringent. Was there a conversation where you and your team decided, no, these certification programs are too expensive, let’s not do them, or was it not even discussed?
RK: I don’t know if there’s been a formal process—it’s really about institutional costs placed on developing a property. Developing a site to be LEED certified — we encourage it. At this point there is a seniors complex that is being built in Lawrence that is seeking LEED certification. They are installing certain energy saving devices such as solar panels, but once again the biggest drawback is the institutional cost. You try to be sensitive to building owners, but you know the issue always the cost.
And I wouldn’t say cost is the only issue, but it becomes important when you’re trying to balance different factors. We’re trying to not only do things that are environmentally sustainable, but we’ve got demands from outside the organization that require economic resources as well, and when you try to balance, it begins to conflict with the amount of revenue we can raise — property taxes are a sensitive issue. We’re trying to balance all of those delicate matters simultaneously. Sometimes it feels like trying to balance a bowling ball on the head of a pin. There are different demands for services and resources, and every constituency is has different priorities, so we try to be sensitive to each one of those in a away that can help you move forward and be positive.
RG: A recent Op-Ed piece in the NJ section of the New York Times explored long-term environmental goals that the State is setting. How do you see these affecting Lawrence Township?
RK: I think we’ll have to wait and see what the final language of the legislation is. Certainly there will be some trickle down to the local level. It’s going to be interesting to watch the debate. If you’re mandating things, there needs to be some type of financial support from the State for us to implement it. Now, why do you need financial support? Well, because it’s going to cost us money to switch directions: whether we have fleet vehicles that need to be changed, if there are alternative fuels that are being used, etc. So there are many things to look at, and yes there will be costs, and again this is where we run into the challenge of balancing different demands.
We, for example, are faced with a lot of expenses with the storm water situation. We have to place medallions on all the storm water basins. Every existing grate has to be retrofitted or the grates themselves have to be changed to prevent soil from entering the storm drain system. We need to build a truck washing facility, and we’re trying to do that in cooperation with other towns, so that we can recycle water before it enters as wastewater, so it’s clean. It may seem simple, but we’re looking at a half-million dollar expenditure to build a truck washing facility —that’s almost two cents on our tax rate. Now, we can bond that over time, but that means something else isn’t going to be bonded. We’re going to have to do a trade-off. We’ll to have to repave fewer roads that year, or we’re going to have to do fewer building improvements — something is going to have to give, to provide the balance.
So it will be interesting to see how the State will want to reduce emissions. Will it be reduced emissions from auto, or reduced emissions from buildings? If there is some other progression or demand, that’s what we’ll have to deal with. We looked at switching to natural gas vehicles, but that would be a very big expense for us, and it would cost us more up front, so again you’re trying to balance the need against multiple demands.
RG: How do you see groups like Sustainable Lawrence or individual activists in town playing a role in creating public support or financial support?
RK: Sustainable Lawrence operates independently of the local government. That’s significant because instead of a top-down approach, it’s bottom-up, grass roots. And I think that enables an organization like SL to have much broader support. They can place recommendations before town government differently than an advisory committee, as in a top-down framework. The bottom-up approach is very significant; it’s very important, and the most productive.
I think some changes are going to take time for residents to embrace in a way that will result in policy changes in the local government. I think the whole idea is growing, but I think that it hasn’t yet received a lot of cross-germination, hasn’t received a lot of widespread support. I think it’s still trying to have a larger ripple effect in the community. Some progress is going to be small steps, some in big steps, and there will be a few steps backward along the way. So that’s a long answer to a short question. But I think it shows the dynamics of an issue like this because you’re doing a couple things all at the same time_- you’re trying to get support, to buy into a new way of not doing business just for the town, but creating new life habits and taking those life habits and transitioning them into policy changes in the local government.
That’s like turning around an aircraft carrier on a dime. It takes a long time. I think one thing SL has done really well is create recognition of the issue, and it’s also created conversation, and they are the types of approaches that are going to be beneficial in effectuating policy change in how we do things here. You’re going to need broad support for using public resources in a direction that may not at the moment be on anyone’s radar screen. It will be a long road, but I think that if there’s persistence, patience and perseverance, there will be success, but it will take time.
RG: Let’s go back to the balancing issue for a moment. Could you run through what types of interests would come in conflict with each other.? What types of things compete with environmental issues beside cost?
RK: From my vantage point, a lot of it has to do with economics. And that goes back to the other question: how does Sustainable Lawrence facilitate change? Getting things like that accepted into the mindset of policy at the local level is all about how you get it implemented in a way that’s acceptable. Because it takes a lot of education for people to understand the pros and cons and why it should be implemented in our town, and how its going to benefit the community. You know, one of the things that unfortunately, this whole issue of sustainability has to become personalized to be successful. When it becomes something that’s important to them, they become energized and support it. Just by habits and demands. I don’t mean that in a negative way. Until it becomes everyone’s issues, until people really get their hands around a sense of the larger issue – whether it’s global warming, pesticides in our food, or gas at $5 a gallon, something’s going to get their attn on a personal level.
I’ll use an example—I’m driving to work, and I’m at a traffic light. I look in my rear-view mirror, and there’s a guy who’s just enjoying his day. It’s a sunny day, his windows are open, he’s smoking a cigarette, listening to music, and I think to myself, the challenge is making sustainability important to someone like him. It doesn’t strike me he’s going to be a quick sell.
So how do you get people to put green roofs on? You’re going to have to get people to understand the majority of people in the community to get them to understand that it’s important new policies are implemented. So groups like SL, the Environmental Resources Committee, and other groups can help educate. We’ve been trained and created habits that aren’t necessarily on our radar screen. I really think it’s going to be the next generation — students, people hearing it in the classroom today, practicing it in their dormitories. That’s going to be the group that makes the substantial changes. The rest of us are just here to do the education; it’s going to be the younger groups who are going to recognize the importance of creating new habits.
So how do we get people to put green roofs on? It has to become a personalized issue. And I don’t just mean green roofs, I mean sustainability.
RG: In your experience not only as Manager, but also as someone who has lived in Lawrence, have you seen anything comparable to the sustainability movement that has slowly been incorporated into the consciousness and now maybe even be taken for granted?
RK: (Pauses.) Well I go back to composting, that’s one. A lot of services we provide, I think people take them for granted in general. I think people look toward the public sector to take the risk. They may not believe they should take it on themselves, or don’t care to. How children are taken care of in the schools, I think parents generally look to the school system to take a big role. How we should maintain certain standards of public buildings and infrastructure at a level people demand. I find it interesting that people will call and want to know why a certain channel is out of service on their cable. It becomes frustrating to explain to somebody that I’m not the cable guy. I think the people say, “Well, I don’t want a lot of government in my life, but I want government to take care of certain things so I don’t have to.”
The Lawrence-Hopewell Trail group, a nonprofit, has taken on the task of building a 20-mile trail through Lawrence and Hopewell, working with local government and different types of public units. That would be the other example. Trying to do something in concert with the local government.
RG: Researching SL when I started this internship, and talking with Executive Director Ralph Copleman about the various volunteer task forces, it became apparent there are many aspects of sustainability, and trying to integrate them slowly but surely into the public sector presents challenges. What aspects of this seem almost insurmountable at this time, and what aspects make you think “Okay, this is a possibility maybe in the next year, there is precedent for it, we can move ahead”?
RK: I think that the first task should be conservation. People can get their hands around conservation, they can understand it, it has an immediate impact, and they can save money. Show people examples of participating proactively, like recycling. The cost benefit to a taxpayer of recycling newspaper, for example: make sure you’re aggressively doing that and take it out of the normal municipal pick-up waste stream because it costs about $185 dollars per unit of measure. It costs about $27,000 a month to pick up all the recycling, a flat amount, so you’re saving hundreds of thousands of dollars if you can get everyone to understand they’re saving money by recycling. I think that there’s another education issue here. Conservation can have an immediate impact if people understand, “Hey this benefits me.” If you’re complaining about taxes, help yourself.
I really think the area of energy is probably the most immediate item that will get traction, with all the Sustainable Lawrence task forces, whether it’s solar, change in the use of fossil fuels, reducing the use of those. It’s getting people to understand the problem with a more fundamental premise—here’s how each of us can be a participant.