When Paul Ferguson was president of the student bar at George Mason University Law School in the early 1990s, recycling was a novelty concept that had yet to be embraced by the university. But Ferguson was determined to change that.
With his own money he bought several plastic trashcans and affixed labels to them, denoting each as reserved for glass, plastic, aluminum or paper products. Ferguson then spread the containers around the school’s lobby and hallways.
Twice a week he would haul the trashcans out to the school’s parking lot, where they would be picked up by a private company. At the time, Arlington County did not have its own recycling service.
"Some people thought I was the maintenance guy," Ferguson recalled in a recent interview in his Fairlington home.
It was his first attempt at "constituent services," he added, while laughing.
Since his undergraduate days at James Madison University, Ferguson has held a deep commitment to environmental issues. This dedication to protecting nature helped push him into the political arena and has served as a guiding principle for Ferguson during his 11-year tenure on the Arlington County Board.
Ferguson has come to be recognized as a regional leader on environmental issues. He spearheaded the county’s efforts to create incentives for developers to construct green buildings and was instrumental in forging a partnership between the county and the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust to preserve open space in Arlington. Additionally, he sat on the task force that sculpted Arlington’s recycling policy, acted as chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission and was a board member of Arlingtonians for a Cleaner Environment.
"My interest has always been on promoting clean air and water, and land preservation, because it means a higher quality life for everyone and preserves the Earth for future generations," Ferguson said.
ON JAN. 1, Ferguson assumed the role of County Board chairman, and announced he will use that bully pulpit to promote new environmental initiatives that will reduce the energy use of both the county government and local residents.
Ferguson unveiled an ambitious plan to cut the county’s level of carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent over the next six years. During his year-long chairmanship, Ferguson will also promote the use of alternative energy sources — such as wind and solar power — and attempt to pass a property tax break for those who own fuel-efficient vehicles.
While climate change may seem like an "abstract concept" to many Arlington residents, it will have a huge impact on the lives of all Americans in the coming decades, Ferguson said. As the earth’s temperatures gradually warm, glaciers at the poles will melt, causing the sea level to rise. Most scientists now agree that coastal communities will be threatened and storms may intensify, Ferguson said.
"The potential consequences of climate change are frightening," he added. "Most people don’t see the connection between glaciers melting to problems that might occur as a result here in Arlington."
Since the Bush administration has declined to take certain measures that could reduce the emissions that lead to climate change — such as the Kyoto Protocol — it is imperative that local governments do all they can to develop cleaner sources of power and cut the emissions of greenhouse gases, Ferguson emphasized.
"We want to be one of the counties that is part of the solution," he added. "We hope the national leadership can also move us forward."
Ferguson dubs his plan "Fresh AIRE — Arlington Initiative to Reduce Emissions." Cutting the county’s emission of greenhouse gases by 10 percent is the equivalent of taking more than 1,800 cars off the road or removing 22 million pounds of carbon dioxide, Ferguson said.
To reach this lofty goal, Ferguson envisions the county increasing its purchase of wind-generated electricity by two-thirds, to 5 percent of the county’s total energy usage.
Other goals include constructing a solar energy demonstration project; reducing energy usage in county facilities by 2 percent a year; strengthening the "green building" policy that requires new projects to achieve an environmental certification; drafting a climate action plan for Arlington; and planting at least 1,200 new trees.
"We have to try to make sure the policies we put in place now are sustainable for the future of the county," said Ferguson, who previously served as County Board chairman in 1999 and 2003. "Energy efficiency is a solid investment for Arlington to make."
FERGUSON WILL ALSO FOCUS on finding ways for individual residents to lower their energy consumption. The most intriguing proposal is to cut the personal property tax for people who own hybrid cars, thereby providing an incentive for people to purchase fuel-efficient vehicles.
"I want to reward those driving low-emission vehicles and encourage others to drive them," said Ferguson, who lives with his wife Karen, a lawyer, and sons Timothy, 8, and Daniel, 5.
Ferguson would like to see the county pay for energy audits in 20 Arlington homes, during which a specialist assesses ways that a family could cut their energy usage and save money. Ferguson recently had such an audit, which costs approximately $200, and found he could save hundreds of dollars a year by taking simple measures like putting a blanket over the hot water heater and better insulating windows in his attic.
Dominion Power has already agreed to pay for similar audits for some senior and low-income residents, and Washington Gas is considering doing the same, Ferguson said.
He hopes other local businesses will follow their example and take steps to reduce their own energy consumption. Ferguson plans on hosting a business summit to provide companies with ideas and assistance on how to best conserve energy — and therefore save money.
OUTSIDE OF ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES, Ferguson’s top priority is to ensure that construction on several long-delayed capital projects begin in earnest this year. In recent years the county "took on more than we could deliver" Ferguson said, and projects like the new Cherrydale Fire Station and Westover Library have fallen far behind schedule.
"We have to deliver on what we promised," he said. "I’m disappointed we have not been able to move faster on [the Cherrydale and Westover projects]."
Ferguson is also proposing to separate funding for sidewalk, curb and gutter projects from the general Neighborhood Conservation program. This way neighborhoods that need curbs and gutters do not have to apply for the precious few Neighborhood Conservation funds available— and can skip that long and grueling process.
But Ferguson’s initiatives may run into some hurdles due to this year’s challenging fiscal environment. Due to flattening real estate assessments, the county will have a significantly smaller increase in revenue than it has had over the past five years. The County Manager predicts that the County Board will have to make-up a $20 to $30 million shortfall in the 2008 budget if it does not want to raise real estate taxes.
Ferguson acknowledges that the budget environment may imperil some of his goals for the year. "What I want to do may be minimized by our fiscal situation," he said. "We are not going to be able to do everything we want to do."