City’s sustainability planning frustrates mayor, council, others

Plan lacks mentions of Moab’s recycling center

Moab City Council Member Karen Guzman-Newton speaks to City Sustainability Director Rosemarie Russo about a draft of the city’s sustainability plan during a meeting Tuesday, Nov. 12. Photo by Carter Pape

During a discussion on the City of Moab’s Sustainability Action Plan, officials including the mayor and city council members aired frustrations with the process of creating the plan, which has been months in the making, and which has been led by Moab’s Sustainability Director Rosemarie Russo, over complaints that Russo has failed to lead a cohesive process for drafting the plan or to amply account for officials’ feedback during its writing.

According to Russo, following the meeting Tuesday, Nov. 12, she is now working on the seventh draft of the plan, which is scheduled to be back in front of the council and mayor at their next meeting on Nov. 26. The first draft went before the city council in July.

Transportation and buildings among top concerns

Officials say the draft Russo presented Tuesday lacks the inclusion of major elements that have been advocated by the mayor and council since its conception, including a fleshed-out approach to Moab public transit and a metrics-driven approach to regulating building performance – including energy efficiency – in the city. The former point was Mayor Emily Niehaus’ first comment on the plan back in July, and it was one of her discussion points again Tuesday.

“That was my big note from the last time we reviewed the plan,” Niehaus said, referring to public transit.

Russo said in her opening comments Tuesday that one of the major changes in the newest draft were new transportation goals. Niehaus saw it differently, saying, “It sounds to me like it’s addressed by you saying it’s out of scope and not that it’s been incorporated in this new draft, correct?”

Russo responded that she had “incorporated a few more things into it,” but not visitor transportation, which according to Russo’s estimation is the single largest source of carbon emissions in Moab.

“I do also feel like we can be more aggressive with building standards in general and energy efficiency,” Niehaus added. “We don’t have specific targets, so I would like for us to just bite it and get specific targets. I feel really strongly about that.”

Russo responds to Niehaus

In responses to a request for comment on the matter, Russo later told The Times-Independent that Moab has “made great strides” in various areas to improve its sustainability and provided a link to a video commissioned by the Moab Area Travel Council about countywide efforts to improve sustainability in Grand County.

Russo said she also has a different take on what Niehaus meant in her comments about developing specific targets for building standards and transportation.

“I cannot speak for Emily, but I think what she was referencing was the point that not all areas have equal number of strategies,” Russo said.

Russo added that the sustainability plan “simply provides a framework and guidelines for holistically addressing conservation and regeneration.” She said that transportation in Moab was a larger challenge that needs to be addressed in other plans.

“Transportation is included [in the sustainability plan,] but public transit is a regional and state challenge that requires additional financial and staff resources,” Russo said. “My recommendation is to address it in a Master Transportation Plan.”

Russo also listed various steps the city has taken recently to improve sustainability in the area of transportation, including the installation of back-in parking on 100 West “for biker safety,” a bike share pilot for city employees and the purchase of a golf cart to replace a Ford F-350 that city staff use to do trail work.

Recycling center neglected

Also excluded from the plan, which spans 10 goals ranging from renewable energy and water to “Health, Well-Being & Social Equity” and forest canopy, is the Community Recycling Center on Sand Flats Road. The Solid Waste Special Service District operates the recycling center, and District Manager Evan Tyrrell addressed the matter at the meeting.

“We are almost entirely excluded from the plan as a whole – in the Sustainability Action Plan – as it pertains to goal four: waste management and recycling,” Tyrrell said. “The local community recycle center is completely omitted; there is no mention of it whatsoever.

“To me, I feel like that is a very prominent service that’s provided to the community for such a long period of time and I strongly feel that it has served as a major catalyst toward sustainability in Moab and Grand County, as a whole.”

Tyrrell said later that, to his knowledge, Russo “never consulted” his office in the creation of the plan. He said in an email to the council and mayor prior to the discussion that he was “mainly advocating that the Solid Waste District be involved in the development of goals and strategies related to” waste diversion and recycling goals.

“To omit the Community Recycle Center from the [sustainability plan] is a disservice to the countless years of public service it has and continues to provide to the citizens of Grand County and beyond,” Tyrrell later told The Times-Independent.

Russo responds to Tyrrell

In response to criticism that the Solid Waste Special Service District and its recycling center had not been included in the drafting sustainability plan, Russo pointed out to The T-I that both are, indeed, mentioned in the plan.

The district is mentioned twice in the document, both times in the second of 12 appendices of the document. The lone reference to the recycling center is also in that same section.

“In regards to not all parties being included,” Russo said, “over 40 staff and community members provided valuable input, time and expertise, as well as additional government and utility representatives.”

She added that “as part of the technical solar innovation grant, that we were awarded prominent national scientist and economist vetted” the sustainability plan.

Prior concerns

The frustrations, however, did not begin at Tuesday’s meeting. Russo brought the first draft of the proposal before the city council on July 9 and another draft on Aug. 27. On both occasions, officials had feedback for Russo, some of which was repeated at Tuesday’s meeting.

While reviewing a prior draft in August, council member Kalen Jones complained that the document had not been properly “vetted” before it reached the council’s dais, making comments about multiple errors he had found in the document, most prominently simple spelling and grammar errors.

“I opened the document, and there were various spelling and grammatical issues that were identified very helpfully by Word,” Jones said in August, referring to word processor Microsoft Word, which, like most modern word processors, automatically checks for spelling and grammar mistakes.

Niehaus, who had brought up building standards and transit at the July meeting, said that she had been looking for months now to see standards for those two items – which she said were “data driven, actionable items” – incorporated into the plan.

“I think I have been really clear this whole time: Those have been key components,” Niehaus said Tuesday.

Budget season is upon the council

Council member Rani Derasary complained Tuesday that the process for writing the sustainability plan had been drawn out to the point that it was already threatening to conflict with the city’s budgeting process for the next fiscal year, which begins next summer. The city’s first meeting in that upcoming budget process will take place the first week of December.

“I feel like I need to get to the next step where we have ample time to discuss how to prioritize what items we’re investing in in the coming year because I kind of need to know that well in advance of when we budget,” Derasary said.

She later added that there were “a lot of ideas” in the plan but that she needed to know “which ones are going to give me more bang for their buck” so that she would be “more prepared” for the inclusion of the sustainability plan in the budget.

Niehaus ended discussion Tuesday on the sustainability plan by playing a lighter note, thanking Russo for her work on the plan and related projects.

“Just because there is comment and concern does not mean there is not love and appreciation, and I just want to say that because sometimes discussion can feel like criticism, and I just want to say thank you for all of your work on all of these plans,” Niehaus said before Russo left the meeting.

This story has been updated to include comments from Russo.