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Former Del. Stephen Lafferty is Baltimore County’s first chief sustainability officer. What does that mean?

Former state Del. Stephen Lafferty is Baltimore County's first chief sustainability officer. He started on the job in early September and says one of his tasks is to further interagency cooperation.
Former state Del. Stephen Lafferty is Baltimore County's first chief sustainability officer. He started on the job in early September and says one of his tasks is to further interagency cooperation. (Cody Boteler / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. in mid-August announced that then-Del. Stephen Lafferty, a Democrat from Towson, would join his administration as the county’s first-ever chief sustainability officer.

The 70-year-old worked in Annapolis since 2007, serving on the House Environment and Transportation Committee, and worked for the Howard County government as deputy director of planning and zoning from 2003 to 2015.

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“The whole sustainability umbrella is a big umbrella,” county spokesperson T.J. Smith said. “It’s like a guiding light.”

Sustainability, in this use, refers to ways the county can operate without contributing to environmental pollution and without emitting tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change. Sustainability also refers to managing an area’s natural resources, such as waterways and forests.

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Nearby jurisdictions like Baltimore City and Howard County have directors of sustainability, jobs similar to what Lafferty is doing.

Smith said that he has sat in on many meetings involving various departments where sustainability comes up as part of a broader discussion. Lafferty’s job will be to oversee and coordinate all of that.

Lafferty started on the job Sept. 9, but he and Smith both said they want sustainability to become part of the culture of Baltimore County government.

"This becomes like a police chief, right?” Smith said. “You’re not going to go without a police chief. You shouldn’t be going without sustainability.”

Issues Lafferty is looking at immediately include getting more solar panels installed in the county, and working with others in government to see which portions of the county fleet could be electrified to cut down on fossil fuel consumption. He’s also taking a look at where the county procures its energy.

Lafferty does not work within any one county department, or have his own department, rather, he works within Olszewski’s office. The Baltimore Sun has previously reported that his salary will be $105,000.

Baltimore Sun Media sat down with Lafferty to discuss his new role and his views on how Baltimore County can be more sustainable.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Baltimore Sun Media: How would you describe your job? What sorts of things have you been working on?

Steven Lafferty: Really, it’s been getting acclimated so far. I’ve been drawn into a number of issues, like energy procurement for the county, and developing a full resiliency plan [That is, a plan or strategy that addresses how the county will adapt to and mitigate climate change]. We’re working on a new strategic plan for the county for the operation of the county government.

BSM: And what was it that first got you interested in issues of sustainability and environmental protection?

SL: I don’t know. When I first went to Annapolis, I didn’t necessarily expect to be involved in environmental issues as deeply as I’ve become. I think it was really getting to know and work with people who work on those issues. I grew up along the Severn River, so I was quite aware of impacts on waterways. But it was working with [advocates] and knowing the complexities of the future growth and development in Maryland that sort of drew me in.

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BSM: You had been in the legislature for awhile, what made you think and decide, ‘Hey, it’s time for a change?’

SL: I served for 13 years, I believe that during my time, I was able to introduce and get past a number of really important pieces of legislation that have made some positive impact and work with other advocates to also advance some issues and all the land preservation and environmental protection of the Chesapeake Bay. And so I reached a point that I thought, you know, if another opportunity presented itself ... and then the county executive said, you know, he wanted to more aggressively pursue issues of sustainability.

BSM: And so that aggressive pursuit is your purview?

SL: Sustainability is built into our agencies. But it hasn’t had the multiagency focus that the county executive wants to see. And one of the challenges in the county is getting people to work across agencies and develop strategies that are going to have some further-reaching effects than just the day-to-day operations. And also helping each agency to better define what they’re doing to make their own operations sustainable, and what they’re doing to be more sustainable.

BSM: Is Baltimore County, as it’s operating now and been operating, sustainable?

SL: I don’t think sustainable enough. I don’t think there’s really been any effort looking at vulnerabilities or assets that we have. You know, roads, bridges, that sort of infrastructure. Asking questions like, ‘What’s happening along the shoreline [with sea level rise and erosion],’ and ‘how do we avoid some of the flooding that has occurred in some of these older communities?’

So we need some different strategies that have just not been in place. And I hope I can introduce some new ideas and get people thinking a little differently.

BSM: So when you mention vulnerabilities, my mind immediately goes to infrastructure. But there are also vulnerable populations and we just learned, for example, that Baltimore County expects its population of seniors to grow and be a quarter of the overall population. Are you looking at those sorts of things, too?

SL: I’ve been asked to serve on an age-friendly advisory committee at the Department of Aging. One of the most significant impacts that the county is going to feel from climate change is hotter summers. And certainly people are more vulnerable in the heat, and the number of injuries go up. So in general, yes, public health impacts are going to have to be a part of the conversation.

BSM: Given that climate change is a global issue, how important is it really for local jurisdictions to be taking sustainably minded actions? Baltimore County is such a small percentage of overall global emissions and pollution.

SL: We can’t wait on China and India. We can’t wait on Ohio to clean its air before it gets over here. We have to do our own part. I think the recent global climate strike sort of highlighted that if we’re not paying attention to what young people are doing, or what their concerns are, then we’re not really looking to the future. So I think we all have to do our own little part. We have to start now, since we can’t start yesterday.

BSM: How do you balance the desire for economic growth and development with environmental protection and sustainability?

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SL: I think there’s a right balance. I’m not going to speak to any specific project, but I think we have to be cognizant of what environmental protections do we bake into the development process? Are we demanding enough of developers in not only energy efficiency, but in LEED [a green building certification program that looks at building design, construction and operation] standards? Can developers do a green roof? Are they planting trees to absorb some carbon? We’ve got to continually have those questions during conversations around development.

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BSM: Are there any areas of particular concern you have in the county in terms of environmental impact?

SL: If there’s a place, if we can plant 500,000 trees, I think that’d be great. I think we have to be very cognizant of communities that are older and may have been passed by for attention in the past. There are issues of equity in the way we address environmental problems, and it can’t always just be the person or the community that’s loudest in their complaint that gets addressed.

BSM: Climate and the environment are sometimes seen as generational issues. Why is this an area that you’re interested in, one that you care about?

SL: I didn’t go into community work, or seek elected office, because I was thinking about today. It’s really about how we’re going to leave this place in a better circumstance than we found it. If we don’t act today, [the younger generations] will feel it in 30 years. So we have an obligation to you and to others to act now. We’re not going to be able to reverse all the problems that we’ve created. But we have to undertake it, we have to be smarter about it. We just have to look forward.

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