Easy Being Green
REMEMBER when “going green” was a phrase reserved largely for dreadlocked hippies in hemp clothing? Before climate change and carbon footprints were part of the everyday vernacular? Even then, our city’s administration was ahead of the curve… that’s right, we’ve been critical of our officials in these pages, but we give props where props are due. And not just to our city officials… there’s a beautiful synergy in this town between politicians, business owners, restaurateurs, and residents all working toward a common goal: creating a sustainable future. The Green Fair happening from 10am to 4pm at Convention Hall on April 13 might be considered a culmination of so many forward-thinking efforts.
“Sustainability has been a focus for probably about 30 years,” Mayor Ed Mahaney told us, explaining that the city’s environmental commission has been a major catalyst for increased awareness regarding the importance of maintaining a healthy balance between the natural world and human life.
The benchmark accomplishments have been many. There was the water conservation program which made low-flow showerheads and toilets available to residents. There was the building of the desalination plant, still the only one of its kind in the state, during Mayor Mahaney’s first administration, between 1995 and 1998. And there have been tree-planting programs, anti-idling enforcement campaigns, efforts to use recycled mulch in local gardens, the birth of community paper-shredding days, the installation of energy-saving appliances in public buildings that lowered the city’s electric bill by approximately $17,000… the list is extensive and even a bit overwhelming.
By 2011, the establishment of a nonprofit certification program called Sustainable Jersey — meant to recognize municipalities doing such work, and to provide training and financial incentives for those wanting to do more — had led Mayor Mahaney and the city council to put together a green team, comprised of 21 proactive residents. The group was responsible for cataloging the city’s green accomplishments to date so that they might be presented to Sustainable Jersey. That same year, Cape May’s first formal year of participation, the city was awarded the organization’s highest honor, a silver designation. In 2012, it achieved the same. “They are one of the elite,” we were told by Sustainable Jersey representative Kristy Ranieri. “Cape May is a star.” It’s likely why the organization has sought out Mayor Mahaney to join their board, along with four other New Jersey mayors, a position he’s accepted. Out of 566 municipalities in the state, only 113 are certified, and only 11 of these are labeled silver.
But Cape May isn’t slowing down when it comes to going green. The honors come on the heels of more exciting developments, like the city-wide move to single-stream recycling that was put into place last Monday, or the work the city’s construction office is doing to counsel people undertaking construction projects on the most responsible building materials. Or the installation of the wind turbine being worked on this week at Cape May City Elementary, while the kids are on spring break. The city got a grant for it in 2011, not only in order to reduce the school’s energy costs but to open young eyes to the importance of alternative energy, as operating the turbine will become an integral part of the curriculum.
And so many of these endeavors are being done with “free” money. “We’ve gotten over $200,000 worth of city improvements paid for by grants and rebates,” Mayor Mahaney told us. Over the last three years, Cape May has worked with the State Board of Public Utilities on an initiative called Direct Install. The city underwent an energy audit, and because it agreed to make more than 25 percent of the suggested improvements (you’ve probably noticed the solar panels on the beach patrol headquarters, for instance), not only was the cost of the audit rebated, but Direct Install footed the majority of the bill for the work. Now, more than 30 businesses in town are pursuing their own energy audits, and the city is working on extending the same opportunity to home owners.
And these are just the projects that get mentioned at meetings of city council (mentioned to sparse crowds, but mentioned nonetheless). There are other under-the-radar movements afoot, like the building of a 1,600-square foot house on Roslyn Avenue in North Cape May that’s intended to be a near-zero energy home. Michael Sebright of Energy Reconsidered, Inc, based in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, told us he’s working as the energy consultant for the project, but that all of the parties involved in its construction, including architect John Huber, have worked together from the beginning to create a home that will generate nothing in utility costs… think solar paneling and a sophisticated heat recovery ventilation system that introduces fresh air to a building in an efficient way. An electrical panel will monitor every circuit in the house, nicknamed by those involved as “Exit Zero house,” sending a data feed to Michael’s office so that energy output can be analyzed.
“We’ve built several of these homes in the Philadelphia area,” Michael told us. “But this will be the first of its kind in the area, and we’re hoping the prototype will be replicated. There are 50 homes in that neighborhood in which the exact same thing could be put in place.”
And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the work of some of the establishments in town, like the Mad Batter restaurant and Caroll Villa Hotel, with floors of sustainable bamboo, a bar made of recycled material and men’s rooms featuring waterless urinals, among other eco-friendly features. Or the work of Cape Resorts, which sources 80 percent of the produce for its restaurants from its Beach Plum Farm. Or the work of the Cape May Bird Observatory and the Nature Center, who do great work promoting eco-tourism.
So, it makes sense that this city would be hosting the Green Fair on April 13. “There won’t be vendors,” Mayor Mahaney told us. “We’re not trying to sell people something.” Instead, exhibitors will be on hand to entertain and educate. Look for best-selling authors, as well as representatives from Cape May Film Society, who will be showcasing some environmental movies, the Cape May Coast Guard Base, who will explain some of the ways they’ve made their base more energy-efficient, the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, US Fish and Wildlife, The Cape May Nature Center, The Atlantic County Utility Authority, the Audubon Society and, of course, Sustainable Jersey. You’ll get tips for ways to make your own home more green, and you’ll enjoy the entertainment provided by the Turtle Singer and the Brian Height Quartet.
Local chef Jimmy Burton of the Rusty Nail will be on hand making some tasty, and sustainable, treats. “The value to any resident is to come out and see how we maintain our quality of life through some simple steps,” Mayor Mahaney said. “The people here truly care about conservation, and this program will have something that everyone will appreciate and learn from.”
Down On The Farm
SINCE we’re on quite a sustainability kick here, we would be remiss not to mention an exciting, sustainably-minded event happening in the Congress Hall Ballroom on April 18: Forum On The Green — Farm-To-Table Dinner.
The dinner is a part of this year’s Cape May Forum, a series of events which facilitate discussion between Cape Mayans about a topic important to the community. This year’s theme, “Water Matters”, seems especially pertinent for our neck of the woods. “Our mission is to bring speakers and experts who will benefit everyone, locals and tourists,” Cape May Forum President Ronnie Cohen told us. “This is an initiative that a number of people in the community wanted to bring to Cape May, so now here we are, in our fourth year, and we have a few special things up our sleeve. We are partnering with National Geographic, we’re hosting our very first book club with the help of the Cape May County Library, and we’re partnering with a lot of local non-profit organizations, including the New Jersey Maritime Museum, who are sponsoring a lecture. We’re also inviting some renowned speakers.” Among these keynoters? West Cape May resident John Francis, otherwise known as the PlanetWalker, who was so abhorred by human treatment of the planet in the ’70s that he gave up traveling by motorized car for 22 years and walked the length of America.
The Farm-to-Table Dinner is one of the Forum’s biggest fundraisers. “It began in our second year, when the topic was ‘The Politics of Food in the 21st Century,’” Ronnie said. “People absolutely loved it, so we decided to make it yearly.”
The event, open to everyone, is a product of Cape May Forum’s partnership with Slow Food South Jersey, an organization that emphasizes the importance of eating local, fresh, and in-season food. “It will be delicious,” Ronnie said. “We’re featuring Cape May oysters, scallops, fish, local cheeses and crackers, and local wines.”
Ronnie also told us that all of the evening’s produce will be coming from West Cape May’s 62-acre Beach Plum Farm, which provides the produce for all of the Cape Resorts restaurants (Ebbitt Room, Blue Pig Tavern, Tommy’s Folly, The Rusty Nail) so we caught up with head farmer/ manager Jaime Alvarez. But what’s on the evening’s menu, he told us, is yet to be decided. “The thing about this type of event,” he said, “is that whatever is growing well at the time of the dinner is what’s served. Judging by the things that we’re growing right now, you’ll probably see our greenhouse tomatoes. And you might see other vegetables, like parsley, carrots, turnips, beets, and lettuce.” A 3,000-square-foot greenhouse has increased the options. “Right now, and in the past couple of months, we have been growing all kinds of different things in there,” he said. “Different varieties of lettuce, baby greens, and some spices, which are delivered to restaurants at least once a week.”
But no matter how broad or narrow your palette, Ronnie assured us, you’ll leave the Farm-To-Table Dinner satisfied. “We will have something for everyone,” she said. “We’ll even have vegan and vegetarian options. This dinner gives us a way to both contribute to the community and eat healthy, delicious food at the same time.”
So far, there are about 175 guests expected, and tickets are still on sale at the Forum’s website, priced at $60. For more info, visit capemayforum.org.
After The Storm
WE OFTEN print pictures of our readers holding Exit Zero on white sandy beaches and picturesque mountaintops, but there’s one subscriber whose been reading his issues in a war zone.
At least, that’s how 59-year-old school teacher Mike Letso describes Lavalette, New Jersey, post Hurricane Sandy.
A lifelong surfer, Mike is comfortable in the water, but even he was terrified by the ocean that, during the storm, turned his home town into an unrecognizable mess. “Houses are upside down,” he said. “One was spun completely around. Many are splintered with nothing but a roof on them. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Mike and his wife, who chose not to evacuate, spent two days trapped inside their own house. “In retrospect, we were ignorant,” he said. “We should have left. We watched the water go from a trickling down the street to a river. We were freaked out, and in total darkness. When we finally came out, we saw the devastation everywhere. There are places, just blocks away, where you can’t tell where the street used to be. It’s a reality check… one night can destroy everything.”
In addition to losing so many sentimental things — 50-year-old Christmas decorations, children’s toys Mike had hoped his grandkids would enjoy one day, all of his old music books — the couple lost three vehicles, as well as their plumbing, water and electricity, rendering their house unlivable… a reality, they say, that pales in comparison to that of so many neighbors. “I have survivor’s guilt,” Mike said. “We were some of the lucky ones.” Still, the Letsos hitched a ride out of town and took up residence with friends in Point Pleasant for four-and-a-half months.
But the week of St. Patrick’s Day, the couple returned home, the only ones on their street to do so. “I sat on the stoop after midnight,” he said. “I felt like playing, so I took a big can of Guinness and the 1982 Fender F-75 I got for my high school graduation and played in the freezing cold. People ask why we don’t move, and it’s a good question. I actually think Cape May is much nicer, but this is the place I know. The awful stench of the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and Barnegat Bay still pervades everything. A coating of muck won’t wash away. The stench and gloom are still unbearable.”
Or at least it would be, if it weren’t for the solace Mike takes from surfing, songwriting, and one of his favorite pastimes, visiting Cape May. “The first time I went there was my wedding night,” he told us. “My wife kept her dress on while we were on the promenade, eating funnel cake. It was beautiful.”
Now, the couple visits Cape May four or five times a year. Immediately following the storm, they spent a few nights at the Grand Hotel. “It was the most wonderful feeling to know Cape May wasn’t affected, especially because we’d heard rumors that the town didn’t exist anymore. And recently, we wanted to go surfing. Because it’s so sad here, where you have to walk by mashed-up houses, we got up at dawn and drove to Queen Street. What a wonderful diversion.”
A diversion, Mike told us, that makes the road ahead feel just a bit less arduous. “Being in Cape May,” he said, “that’s the first time we’ve been able to think about something other than this tragedy. A drive down the Parkway, and we’re in a peaceful place.”