Charlottesville City Council candidates discussed how the city can address the climate crisis during a candidates forum on Wednesday focused on environmental issues.
The virtual forum was hosted by the Piedmont Group, a local chapter of the Sierra Club, and moderated by Donna Shaunesey, president of the group. All three candidates participated.
Democrat Brian Pinkston, Democrat Juandiego Wade and independent Yas Washington are vying for two seats on City Council that are currently held by Mayor Nikuyah Walker and councilor Heather Hill, both of whom are not running for re-election.
When asked if he’d support a city climate action plan, Pinkston said he would, but said he wants to see more specific plans from City Council and city staff.
“The very first thing I would do, and this is really important, is that we get our plan together, a good solid plan that we all agree on, and that we move forward. My understanding is that [University of Virginia] and [Albemarle County] both have solid plans and there’s really no reason why we do not, and so that would be my very first thing,” Pinkston said.
Pinkston noted that the city has funded a climate focused staff position but has not yet hired someone to fill this position.
Wade agreed with Pinkston and said he wants to see a stronger, formal plan.
“If we don’t have one, we need to get it formalized and implemented,” Wade said.
Wade said he’d like to focus on practical, attainable steps towards greater sustainability.
“I am all for the low hanging fruit, things like solar panels on public buildings, improving our tree canopy, improving transit, things like that that we can do without giving everybody a Tesla or SpaceX. I think that’s a little bit more doable that the common folk can do,” Wade said.
Washington said she wants to see the city reduce emissions and become carbon neutral. She is interested in changing all city lightbulbs to more environmentally friendly versions.
“I would definitely like to make sure that we’re working to make sure Charlottesville is more sustainable, and also analyzing [sustainability] programs that we’ve done in the past, and how the city has been able to respond to those,” Washington said.
All three candidates said they support placing a five cent tax on plastic bags to encourage the use of reusable bags.
Shaunesey asked the candidates what they would do to increase the city’s tree canopy, particularly in neighborhoods that experience a heat island effect, meaning there is little to no shade.
Washington said she would like to see more trees planted along sidewalks.
“We want to make sure that we’re also keeping the trees that we already have because a seedling compared to a fully grown tree can’t exactly combat pollution the way that we would like for it to, but it’s definitely a start and I think that’s equally important,” she said.
Wade said he would like to plant more trees and work with the city Tree Commission.
“Trees are important, I support them. I love trees, we need them,” Wade said.
Pinkston said he also values the expertise of the Tree Commission, and said the tree canopy should be considered in the next zoning rewrite.
“The next council will be involved in doing zoning rewrites and in any zoning rewrite that I participate in, I want to make sure that the appropriate amount of tree canopy percentage and longevity and species and so forth are built into those rules,” Pinkston said.
Wade said he would not support the expansion of Charlottesville Gas, the city-owned natural gas utility.
“I don’t think that we should expand it, we need to consider [renewable] types of energy,” Wade said.
Pinkston said he would vote to block the expansion of Charlottesville Gas, but said the issue is complicated and would need to be handled carefully.
“That’s just the first step, and when we do that we need to be careful about unintended consequences. [Charlottesville Gas] is a significant source of revenue for the city … the funds from that can be used to fund climate action. So we need to be thoughtful about how we do it,” Pinkston said.
He said he would be interested in options like high efficiency heat pumps and electrical grids.
Washington said she would also vote to block expansion of Charlottesville Gas, and said that she is concerned about the risk of potential gas leaks.
“In regards to the actual pipelines and how they’re built, I definitely think that quality over quantity is something that we should always consider, even if that means changing the material … to make sure that they’re more durable so that we can avoid leaks in the future,” Washington said.
The City Council election is Nov. 2, but voters can submit their ballots early.
Early voting will be open at the City Hall Annex in Room 142 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On Thursdays, early voting will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. There is also a curbside voting option available.
Charlottesville will also hold two Saturday early voting days from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Oct. 23 and Oct. 30.
Voters can hand-deliver their mail-in ballots to the City Hall Annex and a drop box located in front of the main entrance will be available 24/7 beginning Friday through 7 p.m. Nov. 2.