February 10, 2010

If there's a single driving force in Washington County, it just might be the concept of sustainability. In towns and on farms, people are striving to live up to their own proclamation of being the greenest, most sustainable rural community in Kentucky.

It has taken time. The local government cleaned up 27 illegal dump sites in 2001, resulting in the county being named the first Certified Clean County in Kentucky by then-Governor Paul Patton. Today, the county has a master plan that focuses on farmland preservation but still encourages growth; Springfield residents take advantage of a free curbside-pickup recycling program; farmers participate in study groups about sustainability; children bring home free energy-efficient light bulbs from school; and leaders of a local non-profit organization are focusing their current efforts on local food and making homes more energy efficient.

It's a long list that just touches on a few of the projects under way in Washington County. Looked at as a whole, creating a sustainable county can seem like a huge, nearly impossible undertaking. But people in both the public and private sectors had a vision of what could be and were able to break up the big picture into smaller, less daunting pieces.

"They have worked on this a small part at a time. They've done little steps," said Lori Garkovich, professor of community and leadership development in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture.

Garkovich is among the many UK College of Agriculture and Cooperative Extension personnel who have worked with a variety of Washington County individuals and groups over the years, and this experience has given her some insight into the county.

"What I find in the community are a lot of creative thinkers and leaders," she said. "This is a community with elastic boundaries between different organizations, both public and private. They reach out to each other. They explore collaborations that are public-private or unique public-public ones."

Garkovich was invited to Springfield several years ago to help the community create a vision statement. It was an important process, she said, because it allowed leaders to determine if there was any consensus in the community about where people wanted to end up.

"The very concept of sustainability is about creating changes that are economically beneficial for all, that are equitable and environmentally sound. And that's a challenge. It's not easy," she said. "What the vision process did was it helped them understand that they in fact were working on an issue that was important to a significant number of people."

"It all comes back to the people here in the community," said Dennis Morgeson, horticulture extension agent for Washington County. "They want to keep it the way it is. They have connections to the land, and they want future generations to have that connection. The only way to have that is to preserve it."

Morgeson ties the wide-swept enthusiasm in the county to a number of sources, including Cooperative Extension's work and the presence of St. Catharine's Motherhouse and College.

"Some of the sisters (at St. Catharine's) are forward thinking," he said. "It also helps to have government officials - a county judge like John Settles - who are willing and agree with some of that."

The two keys to Washington County's success seem to be their broad vision and small-steps approach. Morgeson and fellow extension agent Rick Greenwell have devoted much of their time to implementing those steps. Morgeson teaches classes on vegetable gardening and the use of rain barrels. This year he's adding a class on backyard chickens to the mix. Greenwell, the agriculture and natural resources agent, has been working on barn and farmland preservation.

"It's interesting to me that barn preservation actually ends up being farmland preservation in most cases," he said, citing the fact that when landowners put in the time and expense to renovate their barns, they usually will work to preserve the surrounding property as well.

Both agents also sit on the board of directors of a local grassroots organization, New Pioneers for a Sustainable Future. Led by Sister Claire McGowan, a Dominican nun from St. Catharine's Motherhouse, New Pioneers' mission is "to promote sustainable thinking and sustainable development." According to Garkovich, McGowan is a perfect example of how an individual can help rally an entire community.

"To me, one of the things Sister Claire is a master at is helping to build bridges to everybody," Garkovich said. "She built relationships for two or three years before she ever tried to do anything major. She went and listened to people and asked them, ‘When you think about the future, what do you want for this place?' and tried to find the commonalities in that and that sense of perspective on tomorrow. And then (she) built from there."

The phrase "I don't know how" apparently is not in McGowan's vocabulary. When then-Mayor Mike Haydon asked her to develop a curbside-pickup recycling program for Springfield in 2005, her first thought was "Lord, I wouldn't have a clue how to do that!"

"But I heard myself say, ‘Yes, that would be great!'" McGowan said, laughing.

That was New Pioneers' first project and the first in a long line of successes.

"We keep more than a million pounds of materials out of the landfill and into reuse every year, just from what Springfield collects," she said. "Springfield is a little city; we're only 3,000 people. So that's a significant accomplishment. And people are pleased with themselves for doing that and pleased that a way has been made to do it simply."

McGowan and other area leaders have taken advantage of many of the opportunities the UK College of Agriculture offers. Greenwell and the Main Street Renaissance committee worked with students in the UK Department of Landscape Architecture, who devised a master plan for the county. Their work continues to guide the New Pioneers. McGowan was instrumental in pulling together public and private community leaders for a visioning process under Garkovich. And she recently graduated from the college's Kentucky Entrepreneurial Coaches Institute. The training she received from the institute has helped her coach people on new business startups, including a young family wanting to raise pastured poultry, and to initiate an Entrepreneurs Resource Center at the county public library.

"Washington County is an exceptionally beautiful place, and it's a place that is only 2 percent developed so far. So we have this unique opportunity to protect what's here," she said. "We want growth, but we want the kind of growth that's going to be healthy for the grandchildren."

Currently McGowan and Morgeson are working with the New Pioneers' 12-member board to help build a local food network in the area. And again, they've broken the task into smaller pieces, one of which is creating a Web site to connect food and crafts producers and consumers.

"We're hoping the Web site will grow into an online store, and the online store will eventually grow into a downtown market. It will be so great if we can do that," McGowan said.

New Pioneers also started a "Green Pioneer Homes" campaign. The organizers created a brochure with a list of 16 practices that people could do to make their homes more sustainable. If a family completes eight of the 16 items, they receive a bright green 4 inch-by-4 inch decal for their mailbox proclaiming, "We're proud to be a Green Pioneer Home." So far more than 650 homes in the county are displaying the decal.

"We're doing our little bit," McGowan said. "And we're hoping that we can provide some light to other rural communities in Kentucky. Yes, it is hard work, but you can have fun while you're doing it, and it really will end up making a big difference, not just for us, but also for the future generations who will live in and love this place."