Oak Park village hall

Sustainability and environmental initiatives took the spotlight during the Oak Park Village Board’s Feb. 8 meeting.

The meeting began with the village board passing a proclamation declaring 2021 “The Year of the Butterfly,” as proposed by the Oak Park environmental club Earth Action Team. The proclamation is part of the mayor’s “Monarch Pledge,” first taken in 2017, which entails planting milkweed and nectar plants to create a healthy habitat for monarch butterflies and to assist them during their annual migration period. 

Discussions of the village’s sustainability efforts took up a large portion of the meeting, with the ad hoc Oak Park Climate Action planning group sharing their recommendations for immediate expenditures. The recommendations were presented by Laura Derks, who leads the group of volunteers and serves as chair of the village’s Environment and Energy Commission. The group of volunteers includes trustees Susan Buchanan and Simone Boutet.

The recommendations address the village’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, prioritize an equitable and inclusive approach to climate change, and provide cost-efficient options, according to the group.

The group recommended implementing a public relations campaign to spread awareness about building energy use, which is the highest contributor of greenhouse gasses, including a website that provides climate change information, the village’s initiatives, and resources for energy audits, among other items. Buchanan noted that many energy audits are free of charge.

Trustee Deno Andrews felt the campaign idea would prove ineffective, believing that Oak Park residents do not have the means currently to make changes and would not want energy auditors pointing out areas for improvement in their homes. 

“People in general don’t have the money to make these capital improvements on their homes,” said Andrews. He suggested financial help from the village would motivate people more to address energy inefficiency in their homes. 

Coincidentally, the group’s recommendations included the creation of a grant, worth between $2,000 to $5,000, to help residents implement energy efficiency changes identified during energy audits, as well as the creation of a program to incentivize installation of solar power.

The Climate Action group suggested hiring a one-time, short-term consultant to help develop a comprehensive climate action plan and a full-time staff person to help implement the plan and carry out future climate action goals. 

While other municipalities have hired staff dedicated to climate action, Andrews was “cautious” about hiring a new full-time staff person in Oak Park.

“I don’t know how much these other municipalities with their increased staff have actually moved the needle because of the increased staff,” he said. 

Village Manager Cara Pavlicek said she needed to know the board’s goals and preferred time frame for accomplishing them in order to determine whether another staff person was needed. She noted that staff currently has large workloads.

“We are stretched pretty thin, and especially in terms of sustainability,” she said.

Trustee Dan Moroney favored taking a more piecemeal, project-based approach with “less bureaucracy” and “more of a community benefit” rather than having a comprehensive plan to address climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

“I don’t want to rain on the parade of the work that’s been done. It’s interesting and it has merit,” said Moroney. “I want to hear more.”

The mayor directed staff to review the recommendations and return to the village board in March.

The board voted to defer the green alley improvement project instead of constructing it using the sustainability fund and then reimbursing the fund in 2022 although deferring the project risks the loss of a $475,000 grant from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District awarded to help pay for the project. 

While green alleys lower flooding risks by capturing larger amounts of rainwater — at least 220,000 gallons of water per rainfall of 1 inch or higher, according to Village Engineer Bill McKenna — concrete alleys cost less and last longer. 

McKenna stated that a north-south concrete alley costs about $120,000 and lasts 75 to 80 years, while a north-south green alley costs $180,000 and has a lifespan of 30 to 50 years.

Boutet worried that the incoming board, given the financial impacts of the pandemic, might be unwilling to reimburse the sustainability fund and didn’t think going forward with the project was “the right thing to do,” while Trustee Jim Taglia did not want to risk losing the grant money.

Boutet, Andrews, Buchanan and Walker-Peddakotla voted against using the sustainability fund with Taglia, Moroney and Abu-Taleb voting in favor using it. 

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