Environmental issues would get top priority in Howard County government, with a new agency reporting directly to County Executive Ken Ulman if he adopts draft recommendations of a volunteer commission.
The 21-member Commission on the Environment and Sustainability appointed by Ulman in February will recommend that the county create an Office of Environmental Sustainability, as well as take action on matters such as air and water quality, energy conservation and open space.
The commission met yesterday to discuss details of its final report, scheduled to be presented to Ulman on Aug. 28, and plan a celebratory party for later that week.
The group also plans to recommend formation of a permanent advisory board. The creation of the office and advisory board would require County Council approval.
The commission favored the proposed Office of Environmental Sustainability - with clout similar to the county's budget and law offices - rather than creation of a formal department of the environment, which members believed would cause a cumbersome reorganization of government and be less effective.
Joshua Feldmark, the commission's executive director, said he envisions an office that could eventually have a staff of seven employees. The office would include five bureaus, covering policy development, environmental compliance, energy management, education and outreach, and financial management, according to the report distributed at yesterday's meeting in the George Howard Building.
Mark Southerland, the commission's co-chair and an ecologist, said, "It all comes down to leadership at the county executive level." Ulman has made environmental progress and energy savings a key issue in his administration.
Several members praised Ulman for focusing attention on environmental issues by creating the commission.
"This is only the very beginning; 2007 is a watershed of a beginning effort to move the environment forward for the county," said Elizabeth Singer, vice president of the Howard County Citizens Association and co-chair of the commission.
Singer said the commission's process was as refreshing as its conclusions.
"What's unique about the process is the dialogue sessions," she said. There were no mind-numbing, formal public hearings stretching until midnight. "We sat in a circle and everybody had an opportunity" to contribute. The result was substantially based on that dialogue, she said.
The Commission on the Environment and Sustainability worked in five committees to come up with its draft recommendations. In addition to the group that discussed creating the new agency, other groups considered air and water quality, energy, environmentally friendly buildings and open space and land preservation.
Ulman recently signed legislation approved by County Council promoting construction of "green" buildings in the county - not waiting for the commission's report on that.
"Ken didn't say he would stand still. That's good," said Lee Walker Oxenham, the Sierra Club's representative on the commission.
The committees suggested ways for environmental issues to be injected into the policies of every county government agency, from development regulations in planning and zoning to paving requirements in public works.
The draft report reviewed yesterday, for example, said regulations "need to be updated ... to encourage and require development that minimizes impervious surfaces, retains trees and better incorporates low-impact development."
The report said the county needs to emphasize mass transit over automobile use, and the energy committee suggested broad goals - such as reducing 2006 levels of greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent by 2017.
Land preservation is another pressing matter, the open-space committee concluded, because the county's supply of undeveloped land has shrunk drastically.
The education group suggested creating a "central source of consumer and technical information about energy conservation and environmental protection," informing the public on environmental issues, and partnering with county schools and Howard Community College.
Feldmark said he has been keeping Ulman up to date on the commission's work and recommendations.
"We wouldn't want this to be a shock," commission member Betsy McMillion said.
Chein-Chi Chang, a commission member who is a senior engineer at the Washington Water and Sewer Authority, had another question.
"How will we resolve differences between the director [of environment] and other department heads?" he asked.
Feldmark said that was the intent in positioning the proposed agency directly under the county executive, who would be the final arbiter of disputes.