In this edition of our Community Climate Champions series highlighting individuals and organizations building a better future for their communities, we focus on TownOfUlsterCitizens.Org.
Before founding TownOfUlsterCitizens.Org, long-term Ulster, New York resident Laura Harmann had never been too involved in politics or local government. She never thought she’d create a town organization to fight for the future of her community. But when she heard that Ulster was being considered for the site of a natural gas power plant in 2018, that’s exactly what she did.
What began as a small group of concerned citizens turned into a collective movement that was able to prevent a natural gas peaker plant from setting up shop in an area that would impact neighborhood residents and wildlife.
How did this small organization do it? Tactful community organizing that educated and empowered local stakeholders to make their voices heard.
Today, TownOfUlsterCitizens.Org is a bipartisan group of citizens dedicated to engaging people in local government. The group informs, unifies, and inspires residents of Ulster to advocate for the town’s preservation and a higher quality of life for its residents.
The Power Plant Project That Started it All
Laura has always been proud of Ulster’s dedication to environmental conservation. The small town is situated along the Hudson River in the heart of the Hudson Valley, nestled within the Catskill Mountains. Much of Ulster’s appeal comes from its lush farmland, privately-held country homes, and convenient location. Ulster boasts superior air quality with little-to-no pollution and receives water from the Rondout Reservoir, a subsidiary of the Catskill Watershed that provides New York City with its award-winning tap water.
Preserving Land and Streams with the Catskill Center
So when a natural gas peaker plant project with battery storage was scheduled for construction on some of Ulster’s cherished natural land in 2018, the thought of Ulster’s natural beauty coming under threat made Laura spring into action.
“The power plant construction was scheduled to take place on preserved wetlands with lots of nature, natural ecosystems, and many different species of bats,” Laura told us. “It would have been horrible.”
Laura got to work and reached out to residents in the neighborhood who would be affected by the power plant, including Regis Obijiski, who lived right across the street from where it was contracted to be built.
Recognizing the power plant’s threat to nature and Ulster residents’ quality of life, Regis offered to help out however he could. Thus, Regis became a co-leader of the group that is now TownOfUlsterCitizens.Org.
“The next thing you know, I had a meeting with about 10 people at my house who all felt as though something needed to be done,” Laura told us. “And that’s how TownOfUlsterCitizens.Org began.”
Ulster was chosen as a site for the project because of its highly-ranked air quality. Why? “The developers thought the town could ‘afford’ the pollutants,” Laura told us. “There were gasps in the room when we heard that was the reason why,” she said.
The group got to work emailing Ulster’s town supervisor and encouraging others, including those in the neighboring town of Kingston, to do the same. Second, the group attended town meetings to express their concerns about the environmental impact, decreasing property values, and the legitimacy of the company involved.
TownOfUlsterCitizens.Org even requested a zoning clarification from the Zoning Board of Appeals. The request was denied at first; however, the group kept pushing, re-submitted a request, and eventually influenced officials to grant the land protection.
It took 18 months, but TownOfUlsterCitizens.Org was able to get the project limited to just a battery-storage facility, and got it moved to a location farther from neighborhoods and wildlife. “It was our first big win as an organization,” Laura shared, “It took a lot of work, but it was a huge accomplishment.”
Although those working to shut down the project held similar values, they were not all acting for the same reasons. “People came from different places here,” Regis told us. “A few of us are more environmentally-conscious than others, but you have to meet people where they are. If somebody doesn’t care about the environment, but really cares about their property value, then you appeal to that. We had people all doing the right thing for different reasons.”
Spreading Solar in Ulster
After the power plant win, TownOfUlsterCitizens.Org set its sights on new environmental solutions for the town by exploring clean energy options. The organization sought environmental solutions that would help residents feel good about their impact on their local community and the planet as a whole. They looked into wind, solar, and other renewable energy alternatives.
What is Community Solar?
Regis, who was unable to get solar panels for his own home, found out about community solar at a webinar hosted by Catskill Mountain Keeper and Sustainable Hudson Valley. The webinar talked about the virtues of heat pumps and other green power initiatives, including the benefits of community-shared solar.
Community solar appealed to Regis for several reasons, but mostly for its environmental impact. “Because of our involvement in several local issues that have to do with environmental conservation and preservation, I thought, well, you know we’ve got to do our individual part with regard to fossil fuels,” he said.
The webinar listed several community solar companies active in the Hudson Valley region, including Solstice. From reaching out to Solstice, Regis found out about our partnership program, which appealed to him and TownOfUlsterCitizens.Org not just for the environmental impact, but also for the 10% savings, $50 enrollment bonus, and $50 donation to TownOfUlsterCitizens.Org.
As co-leader of the organization, Regis runs the budget for TownOfUlsterCitizens.Org. so when he heard about savings and donations, it was a done deal. “I thought, ‘well this could have a really nice effect on our numbers and would help promote community solar,’ so that’s what we have been doing,” Regis shared.
In tandem with Solstice, TownOfUlsterCitizens.Org hosted its first post-pandemic in-person event to spread the good word about community solar. This socially-distant event gave members of the community an opportunity to reconnect and get excited about a renewable energy future for the town. “Everyone who showed up was really excited about it,” Laura said, “All of them signed up.”
Community Organizing: Decision-Making for Improved Quality of Life
A sense of togetherness, building common ground on issues by appealing to how local decisions impact everyday lives.
“What I like best about the Town of Ulster Citizens.Org is that it brings people together in a way that it otherwise would not have,” Regis told us. “And I think it really speaks to the sense that we’re all in this together. We can work toward unifying our common good. Paying attention to the common wield: where you live, is the single most important thing you can do.”
Tackling climate change and cutting back on global greenhouse gas emissions can be a daunting task; however, looking at it from the local level can help you enact real change in your community. That’s the philosophy of TownOfUlsterCitizens.Org: breaking it down project-by-project to enact local change.
“Looking at global or macro issues is important, but you really have to have such long-term visions on it, that it’s easy to get discouraged,” Regis explained. “When you look at it from a micro point of view, you get to know people and realize that we all have a common purpose here.”
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