Cherry Hill, once a desolate farmland and now a bustling Philadelphia suburb of 70,000, is one of the latest examples of a nationwide movement of local governments committing to make environmental issues a priority.
The township is switching to lower-energy traffic lights, offering residents incentives to recycle and even looking into putting solar panels on a municipal building.
"For far too long we have waited for other government agencies to act on these issues," Mayor Bernie Platt told the township council before it adopted a plan last month to reduce carbon emissions and waste. "This elected body will act to provide leadership, guidance and immediate action."
Many local governments across New Jersey and the nation are also taking formal steps to "go green."
- Westwood, N.J. is converting its fleet of police cars to gas-saving hybrids.
- Austin, Texas is planning to power all city-owned buildings with renewable energy by 2020 and require new single-family homes to do the same within a decade.
- Warwick, R.I. has is using more efficient LED lights in all its traffic signals.
Cynthia McCollum, president of the National League of Cities and a member of the city council in Madison, Ala., says the jurisdiction of cities gives them good reason to be thinking green.
"We control the building codes," she said. And in most places, local government controls the roads and planning regulations, she noted.
McCollum's group is lobbying Congress to allocate $2 billion a year to help local governments with environmental initiatives.
"I think it's a good thing in that towns are at least talking about going green," said Peter Kasabach, executive director of New Jersey Future, which promotes sustainable land-use planning. "The concept of going green has gone mainstream."
Cherry Hill isn't exactly a granola-crunching town that you might expect to strive for greenness.
Before it was Cherry Hill, it was Delaware Township, a mass of mostly farmland and a few suburban neighborhoods just east of Camden and Philadelphia.
Starting in the late 1950s, development took off with waves of ranches, split-levels and, later, Colonials, condos and McMansions until by 1985, practically every lot in the 24-square mile town was developed. Population swelled to about 70,000, making it one of New Jersey's largest suburbs.
The town's claim to fame was having the first large, enclosed shopping center on the East Coast. The Cherry Hill Mall opened in 1961 and the same year, the township changed its name, picking a moniker that matched the mall, which remains a shopping hub.
Mayor Platt, a funeral director long involved in local politics, looked at recycling as a way to save money. The cost of taking trash to a landfill was rising relentlessly.
Township officials calculated that by using RecycleBank, a program that gives residents gift certificates in exchange for recycling, it could save $2 million in landfill fees over the next five years.
Lori Braunstein, chairwoman of the advocacy group Sustainable Cherry Hill, said Platt turned out to be an easy sell on the goal of reducing and even mitigating carbon emissions, which scientists say lead to global warming.
The 10-point plan the township developed calls for modest measures like annual tree-planting, and ambitious ones such as exploring offering builders incentives to do earth-friendly construction.
There are some environmental concerns in Cherry Hill that might be harder to fix because of the spread-out nature of a suburb built for people expected to commute by car.
"One of the challenges still faced is being able to define green broadly enough," said New Jersey Future's Kasabach. "How people use their land, and get around your town."
His ideal would be relatively dense, walkable villages surrounded by farms and green space and linked by mass transit. That does not describe present-day Cherry Hill, or many of the suburbs that sprung up across New Jersey at the same time.
"Previous planners in Cherry Hill have to take almost all the blame," Mayor Platt said. "We inherited this sprawling suburban community."
Platt says he's seeing progress on the land-use front. There's a building boom going on at the former site of the Garden State Park horse track. While part of the development consists of big-box stores in a sea of parking lots, Platt likes to point out that it's bringing homes and offices within walking distance of a train station.
"It's sort of ironic to green one of the biggest examples of suburban sprawl in the country," said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the Sierra Club in New Jersey. "If you can do it in Cherry Hill, you can do it everywhere."