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Sustainable Silverton – A push to address city’s changing needs

By Melissa Wagoner

Addressing sustainability and climate change concerns on a city-wide basis is a complicated issue and one that is often exasperated by the very nature of city government.

“[The] City Council is comprised of volunteers with limited time and terms, while changing city code requires significant time and effort, especially as parties who may not share the City’s resolved climate goals, such as contractors and developers, emerge in this process to advocate for their own interests,” representatives from Sustainable Silverton – a grassroots organization dedicated to supporting planet-friendly choices – wrote in a press release discussing the city’s current response to climate change.

While the group acknowledges the difficulty of exacting change, it also admits some change is in the works. That’s thanks in part to a set of Climate Action Recommendations that group developed in partnership with the Silverton City Council and the University of Oregon in 2019, and which are still being slowly implemented today.

“What is needed next is a full review of existing codes to compare with these reports, to identify which codes must be changed and which additional codes must be adopted in order to align with the Silverton Energy Plan, as accepted by City Council,” the release said. 

It noted “Sustainable Silverton has asked City Council to direct the City Manager to include sufficient funds in their budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year to have this review completed by a qualified third party.”

In other words, enacting change is a time-consuming and multi-layered process – but it is happening.

Planning for the future

“Building codes are regularly updated every few years,” City Engineer Bart Stepp said about preparations in advance of inclement weather caused by climate change.

“For new utility projects they are designed to maximize the resiliency of the projects against natural disasters like earthquakes, fires, or long-term power outages,” he explained. 

“The new Silver Creek Intake and the new water treatment plant structures are being designed… to be able to handle the Cascadia Earthquake and still be operable,” he said.

Also designed with an eye toward sustainability, is the new Civic Center complex.

“The proposed building will have solar panels on the roof and the building and windows were situated to maximize passive solar heat,” Stepp described. “The bottom floor elevation of the building will also be raised to above the expected flood level that would occur if the Silver Creek Dam collapsed.”

Multiple storm water ponds, permeable paving and numerous areas designed to handle storm water runoff will also be features of the new construction, both of the Civic Center and the new water treatment plant, which will have the addition of roof runoff recycling.

And it’s not just new structures that are being designed differently. The recently completed McClaine Street project is an example of how renovations can also be used to prepare for a future in which the climate is uncertain.

“The McClaine Street project added storm water swales and a storm water system…” Stepp said. “I expect future road projects will include storm system upgrades as part of them.”

Water system preparedness

Ensuring that all of Silverton’s storm water systems are adequate for the larger storms the area has been experiencing has become a priority, as well as improving the overall system’s sustainability.

“Our water and sewer systems will be upgraded to improve their overall energy efficiencies and reduce the amount of water that is wasted within the drinking water system,” Stepp said.

Which is an important step because, while heavy rains can be an issue in the winter months, the opposite is often true during the dry months of summer, when water becomes scarce.

“The [Silverton Planning] Commission is still in the early stages but are currently reviewing code standards to lower water usage for landscaping by further defining landscape standards for new development with the aim to create attractive landscaping that by its nature needs less water to thrive,” Community Development Director Jason Gottgetreu said. 

Describing the first of two proposed changes to the Development Code that are currently being considered. “…The idea is to provide information and direction on how to achieve a water efficient landscape… which also reduces the citizens’ water bill.”

Also under consideration is an incentive for citizens to replace old, less efficient fixtures with newer, more efficient ones; the adoption of an educational model that will encourage water conservation; and increased tree protection during the development process.

Protecting the trees

“Code standards for most residential development have to be clear and objective in order to be applied to development,” Gottgetreu said. “The goal is to create clear and objective standards that retain a higher number of mature trees on-site and better define the amount of trees that have to be replanted when removal is unavoidable, as well as to create a fee-in-lieu of planting to build a tree fund that could be utilized to help with urban forestry objectives.”

Sustainable Silverton would like to see further changes when it comes to tree protection.

“Give tree and wetland protection top priority, such that it would be legally tenable for the City to deny a project like the Eureka ‘Garden Groves’ development, for the sake of preserving the 30+ mature trees and wetland areas on that site,” Sustainable Silverton suggested, in reference to the City Council’s recent approval of a 22-lot subdivision. 

“Without such protections codified, the City did not have the legal standing to deny that application, and Silverton will be losing several dozen mature trees, including white oaks.”

Advocating energy policies

Along with tree protection, Sustainable Silverton also lists the need for solar panel approval on residences, regardless of roof height; more solar-powered, LED exterior lighting on municipal buildings; the conversion of city and Police Department vehicles to electric; and the requirement of EV charging stations proportional to square footage on new constructions as actionable items it would like to see the city pursue.

Not everything must be enacted by the City. Private citizens can take part as well.

“Residents and business owners provide a big benefit to increasing overall City sustainability by remodeling their homes or businesses,” Stepp said. “An example of this is that despite substantial population growth between 2006 and 2021, the annual amount of water the city is taking from Abiqua and Silver Creeks for drinking water has gone down slightly. Upgrading facilities to current building codes will continue to drive more sustainable use of water, electricity, and natural gas within the city.”

For those interested in gaining more knowledge or enacting change at a city-wide level, Stepp suggests attending a City Council meeting or joining a committee like the Planning Commission, Environmental Management Committee, Urban Renewal Agency Advisory Committee or the Historic Landmarks Commission.

“[A]ll assist in providing recommendations on policy and decisions that could affect sustainability within the City,” he said.

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