John Milton once likened learning to the climb up a hillside, suggesting the bit of labor made in the initial ascent is followed by that “so smooth, so green, and so full of goodly prospect.” For a more modern expression of that experience, one need only look to the Florida community of North Port where certain labors in energy conservation and eco-friendly initiatives have not only equated to good prospects for a smoother, greener, tomorrow but also great economic returns and national recognition – today!
Encompassing a Southwest Florida land mass of more than 105 square miles made home by more than 57,000 people, the Sarasota County community of North Port, by virtue of its geographic scale and population, is fixed at the final slot among Florida’s “Top 10 Cities”. Yet when it comes to “being green” – that is, effectively implementing measures that conserve energy, increase efficiency and reduce operational expenditures (thereby saving public tax dollars) – North Port ranks even higher. In fact, North Port has set an enviable benchmark. After joining the Florida Green Building Coalition, the city implemented a variety of energy conservation programs and policies that led to its recognition as a Florida Green Local Government (FGLG). In September, 2012, North Port received the FGBC’s award for posting the highest score of all local governments who applied for the “Green City” designation. The Florida Local Green Government program is one of the FGBC’s premier campaigns to encourage local communities to become more sustainable.
In North Port’s case, certification was not only green, but golden. The city was recognized for implementing as many as 80 distinct programs and projects that span a range of environmental sensitivities. These include: the incorporation of an environmentally-based mission statement into the City’s Comprehensive Plan; the appointing of a specialized staff to coordinate eco-friendly activities; creating an endangered-lands conservation strategy; providing home energy audits and residential building incentives; adopting a green standard as the official minimum criteria for new government buildings; and obtaining Florida-Friendly Landscaping Certification for city parks and green space.
Again, this represents only a fraction of the activities accomplished by North Port during its path to green supremacy. Of course, City Manager Jonathan Lewis affirms that when this process began some four years ago, the city’s intent was not so much about being the best, but simply being better. “The elected body here, historically, has been very supportive of initiatives involving sustainability, and there are three legs of that stool,” says Lewis. “We want to be environmentally sustainable, but whatever we do also has to be fiscally sustainable, does it allow for economic return, and is it socially sustainable, it has to be beneficial to our citizens.”
In that this greening “hits all portions of city services,” Lewis says the beneficial impact on citizens of North Port is measured beyond terms of tax-savings. The City actually provided means for some 400 families to directly realize savings in monthly energy costs. It all began when the city won a federal Energy Efficiency & Conservation Block Grant valued at almost half a million dollars. In partnership with Sarasota County and the cities of Sarasota and Venice, North Port implemented a program to provide energy audits for homeowners who registered to participate in the project. Following the audits, homeowners received financial assistance in making necessary renovations, such as replacing outdated air-conditioning or lighting systems, making use of solar-powered water heaters, or installing new implements such as wall-socket gaskets that help prevent air leakage. Other residents were provided with a sort of grab-bag of goodies that included compact, fluorescent bulbs and information on how to be more energy efficient. The City essentially took some of the steps they had followed to increase energy efficiency in their administrative corridors, and imparted tips and tools that serve citizens directly where they live. These citizens are already enjoying reduced bills for their energy consumption.
The incorporation of these environmental and conservation strategies were among aspects honoring City Manager Lewis when he recently received distinction as 2012’s Outstanding Public Administrator by the Suncoast Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration. Having held the position of City Manager since May 2011, Lewis modestly fends off any credit for sustainability efforts, saying real credit is reserved for veteran city leaders and city Staff.
City Commissioner Tom Jones credits fellow commissioners as well as North Port citizens for embracing greater awareness of the good that comes from being energy efficient. “As Commissioners, we’re as interested as anyone in conserving energy and being good stewards of City money, the savings help ensure a better future for our citizens,” says Jones. “We realized we have to walk the walk and not just talk the talk.”
Jones emphasizes that “walk the walk” not only offers steps to save money now, but also a giant leap in preventing escalating energy costs. “Some people have a perception that there is an endless supply of oil and natural gas, and that we have to build new energy generating facilities. But consumers end up having to pay for that. It costs a lot to build those facilities, and dependence on foreign oil puts American lives on the line. We want to provide for our own means. Conservation allows us to reduce dependency on foreign oil, and spares us the cost of building plants. Those plants wouldn’t even be necessary if we were being more energy efficient,” says Jones.
Both City Manager Lewis and Commissioner Jones praise key city staff for directing the varied projects and programs that has provided North Port with increased savings and increased recognition, or as Jones refers to that staff, “The Green Team.”