Paul Conner

Conner to Head City-Wide Sustainability Plan

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Thursday October 12, 2017

For nine years, Paul Conner has been known as the city’s Director of Planning and Zoning. He oversees the department, assists the planning commission, keeps an eagle’s eye on the city’s Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Regulations, and pores over other countless planning projects.

That’s not all: he is now doubling-up on his duties as South Burlington’s first Chief Sustainability Officer.

City Manager Kevin Dorn made the official announcement at a September city council meeting and explained that the job was the product of on-going discussions amongst himself, Conner, and Deputy City Manager Tom Hubbard stemming back to an annual staff review meeting earlier this year.

A Familiar Topic with an Elevated Approach: Continued Community Effort

Before joining the Planning and Zoning Department in August 2008, Conner was previously a Senior Strategic Planner for Environmental Planning and Design, LLC in Pittsburg, Pa. Before that, he was a Regional Planner with the Rutland Regional Planning Commission in Rutland, Vt. A Montreal, Quebec native, Conner earned his B.A. in Urban Systems Geography and a Masters in Urban Planning from McGill University. He is also a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners.

“He unhesitatingly leapt at the opportunity and has been embracing it,” Dorn recalled. “He’s an incredibly smart, hard-working, visionary professional. We’re extremely fortunate to have him on the team.”

As Chief Sustainability Officer, Conner will collaborate with relevant parties to devise a clear nexus between all the work being done in the city around sustainability and then develop a focused framework. He will also work to identify data-driven key performance indicators to measure self-evaluation and comparison, resulting in an implementation plan.

“There is a much broader spectrum of issues that any municipality has that demands a more focused view on sustainability. This draws the varied things we’re doing to advance this notion of sustainability under one umbrella,” Dorn said.

Conner says the timing is right to focus on sustainability, “I think South Burlington is extremely well-positioned to be taking this on now. It fits so well with what South Burlington has been doing in recent years and is poised to take in the coming years.”

“One of the things that is both exciting and critical about a role like this is the collaboration throughout the city—all the volunteers, committees, departments—and how we can look at this together,” he added.

South Burlington is no stranger to sustainability. Between city departments, the work of volunteer city committees, and civic engagement, several facets of sustainability have found their way into residents’ daily lives as well as the Comprehensive Plan.

Some recent headlines include the $450,000 saved by residents in electricity costs over two years through the Georgetown Energy Prize competition. Or South Burlington’s hand in the Building Homes Together Campaign, which was launched last year by Champlain Housing Trust, Housing, Vermont, and the Regional Planning Commission to add 3,500 new homes to the housing stock within five years to tackle the county’s affordable housing issue.

In August, the city council signed a draft climate resolution to join the Vermont Climate Pledge Coalition—an initiative to meet or exceed the obligations for the United States set forth in the Paris Agreement. The agreement pledges to reduce greenhouse emission levels from 2005 by 26 to 28 percent by 2025 and to be 90 percent renewable by 2050.

While South Burlington is deemed a leader in many aspects, having a comprehensive framework will be the next level of improvement.

“[A framework] will help us to evaluate where we may be a leader…and maybe where we’re not doing as well,” noted Conner.

Additionally, Conner is exploring potential partnerships.

One prospect under consideration is STAR Communities, a nonprofit organization certification program that assists communities with developing a framework for local sustainability. Conner shared a sample STAR evaluation matrix with council that breaks down sustainability into several economic, environmental, and social categories.

The city is also tapping into other resources such as International City/County Management Association (ICMA), ICLEI Communities, National League of Cities, and the Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission. Within higher education resources, there may be an opportunity for a graduate intern to act as a key contact as well as undergraduates for smaller-scale projects.

Follow the Numbers: Data and Dollars

The city takes inspiration from Joe Minicozzi, AICP, the principal of Urban3 LLC consulting company of downtown Asheville real estate developer Public Interest Projects. He was a keynote speaker at this year’s Vermont Downtown and Historic Preservation Conference.

“His presentation was a very data-driven look at the fiscal health of communities,” Conner described. “His company has been helping communities think of their total land area as an asset; their jurisdiction is their total (fixed) asset.”

This system looks at values per acre, examines what types of development or infrastructure can be measured, and studies where cities are generating and expending their resources. The results are intended to help communities make informed decisions.

“We’re doing an evaluation of this across the city, and at the same time we’re looking at how to think both equitably and smartly about our physical infrastructure that we have in the community,” Conner said.

For funding, Dorn is working with the city council to identify financial resources. This can be difficult when working with an existing budget and may involve using discretionary funds.

“In the meantime, we’re preparing for Fiscal Year 2019, and we will be looking at how we can provide resources,” Dorn said. “Also, in the meantime, we’ll be looking for those things that won’t be an additional financial burden—just to get things off the ground.”

Start the Conversation

Over the next couple of months, Conner will be meeting with all the city committees. The Energy Committee was the first to receive an introduction at its October 5 meeting.

“We’ve been focused on sustainability for a long time,” said Energy Committee Chair James Mount. “You could be our champion within the city. We already go to leaders within the city, but having you hear what we’re doing firsthand would be critical.”

“And also have us be bodies to help carry out what you’d like us to do,” added Energy Committee member Linda McGinnis.

A discussion about energy partnerships and opportunities for public education eventually led to a committee motion electing Conner as the South Burlington representative for the Vermont Climate Pledge Coalition.

The subject is reminiscent of a previous city project launched five years ago: Path to Sustainability, recalled Rosanne Greco, a volunteer member on the Board of Directors for the South Burlington Land Trust.

“Maybe you would give some thought to a sustainability board or committee,” Greco posed to Conner. “Every new project that is proposed could go before this committee.”

Conner will return to council with a resources proposal and update in the coming months.

In the interim and from this day forward, public input is encouraged.

“It’s a team effort here, but we also need it from the 18,000 people who live here and the 10,000 people who visit every day,” Dorn said.


SOURCE: Miranda Jonswold, Correspondent