Citizens Support Peekskill Environmental Protection Initiative – Peekskill Herald
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Citizens Support Peekskill Environmental Protection Initiative – Peekskill Herald

Editor’s note: This two-part series about Peekskill’s Conservation Advisory Council was reported and written by Ray DePaul, an intern at the Herald’s Newmark Journalism School. Funding was provided by the New York Community Trust – Westchester.

The persistent, tireless efforts of the Peekskill Conservation Advisory Council (CAC) over the past 13 years have yielded results in the city and beyond. Through initiatives championed by the CAC, Peekskill addresses environmental challenges.

“They’re very involved in Peekskill, not only in sustainability, but in the community,” Kaminski said. “They’re always coming up with new ideas for projects, and their feedback is really valued by the city. They’re a great resource,” said Emma Kaminski of the Center for Economic and Environmental Partnership, a regional nonprofit in Albany.

The CAC is using strategies that “not only involve the city, but (also) work with other cities in Westchester County,” Kaminski added.

The results of CAC’s efforts are visible in many ways and are gaining momentum, with the potential to improve the quality of life for all residents. For example, CAC received a grant in January to conduct a tree inventory, the first step in trying to reverse the loss of hundreds of mature trees in recent years.

One of Peekskill’s most magnificent trees on Requa Street. (Photo: Regina Clarkin)

Recently, in late June, the CAC expanded its food scraps collection program to the Peekskill Farmers’ Market. This is the second location where people can drop off food scraps; the Lower South Street container is still available to residents in the city garage from 9 a.m. to noon. And there’s another important added benefit to the new Market location: educating and connecting with members of the public.

Attendance at the weekly Farmer’s Market is picking up. “We have three or four people signing up,” Jan Melillo said. “We tell them we need new CAC members, and they’re excited about it.” Melillo has been an active CAC member for five years and often speaks on behalf of the committee at town meetings.

Melillo added that most of the people visiting the groups’ stands were young people who were already familiar with the initiatives initiated and managed by CAC.

“I would like to see more youth involvement in city and community activities,” adds Kaminski. She has worked closely with the Peekskill CAC in her current role in Albany and previously when she was an intern with the city of Peekskill.

Protecting treetops and the quality of life for each of us

Another milestone for the CAC came in January when the committee secured a $75,000 grant to conduct a tree inventory in Peekskill. Tree inventories involve examining trees in a given geographic area and noting specific characteristics of the trees, including size, age, and quantity. The official Westchester County government website states that tree inventories are especially helpful for all municipalities in creating “data-driven tree management plan.”

The importance of trees in improving the quality of everyday life for everyone cannot be overstated. In addition to removing carbon dioxide from the air, provide shade, prevent soil erosion and attract wildlifeaccording to the Arbor Day Foundation.

Areas well shaded by trees can be six to ten degrees cooler than unshaded areas. This counteracts the “heat island” effect, in which man-made structures and surrounding paved areas radiate heat, making them “islands” of heat compared to the more natural areas surrounding them. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, increasing tree canopies is a leading way to counteract the heat island effect.

The challenge is getting tougher. The past nine years have been the hottest on record, according to NASA’s Earth Observatory. And as cities like Peekskill become more urbanized, the average temperature in cities already struggling to mitigate climate change will only get worse. To understand and address the situation, in addition to the CAC tree inventory, the city surveying residents to better understand how climate change is affecting Peekskill residents. This will enable the creation of a report detailing strategies to combat climate change.

Three years ago, the 2021 Peekskill Tree Inventory, conducted by satellite, showed that urban parts of the city had little to no trees. However, tree canopies were denser toward the Hudson River, which satellite findings of the Multi-Resolution Land Characteristics Consortium. Unfortunately, today the trees that once grew in this place are also rare.

Their disappearance can be attributed to a number of factors, including: construction of a new housing complex which requires the demolition of a significant portion of the downtown trees. The project, at the South Street and Grove Street site, received city approval in June 2020. Peekskill’s tree ordinance was passed in December 2021.

Satellite imagery of Peekskill, New York from 2021 showing land area covered with trees and land use.

Since the satellite images were taken, there has been significant growth in the downtown area. Today, buildings and other urban development have replaced many of the few trees remaining in downtown Peekskill.

It is necessary to conduct an inventory and protect the remaining trees.

In another initiative that is gaining visibility and momentum, CAC Peekskill worked with volunteers to design brochures to help citizens recycle. “It’s something you can hold in your kitchen and say, ‘Wait a minute, can we put this in plastic?’ It’s just packed with information,” said Kay Barthelmes, a board member who has worked with the Peekskill CAC for almost 10 years.

Front page of a volunteer-created recycling assistance brochure from Peekskill CAC. The brochure is also available in Spanish.

Building community by throwing away food

Beacon, a city in nearby Dutchess County, also has a CAC that has implemented a citywide composting program along with a detailed outline of what is compostable and what should be left at homeThe CAC says it identifies “major environmental threats” and maintains an inventory of natural resources and an index of their open spaces.

The City of Beacon’s composting fact sheet, available on its website.

Barthelmes of the Peekskill CAC said the Beacon council shared good tips on food scraps and running related programs.

In 2020, Melillo said, a group of Scarsdale residents banded together to reach out to nearby cities, towns and municipalities to share their findings about running a functional composting program.

“They even (did research) on the right bags to use,” she added. “They’re an amazing example of a group of citizens helping another group make a difference.”

“I understand that (Scarsdale activists) have said, ‘50 percent of our mission is simply sharing it,’” Barthelmes continued.

In Scarsdale, Michelle Sterling worked closely to promote better green initiatives. Mellilo also credited Sterling for helping to provide quick answers to questions about food waste.

“We’re all here to help,” Sterling said, describing the importance of inspiring other municipalities to turn their “challenges” into “strengths” for other municipalities.

Ron Schulhof, another high-profile advocate who helped start Scarsdale’s food scraps recycling program with Sterling, hopes other municipalities will think, “If they’re doing it, we can do it too.”

Thirty of the 45 municipalities have followed suit and created a Food-Scraps-adjacent program. The success of each program in each city varies, according to Kaminski.

Schulhof says leading these types of initiatives can be difficult, but the most rewarding thing is creating cost-effective and feasible models.

As the program has spread widely across this region of the state, it’s clear that there’s a push to make more climate-friendly decisions, even in unlikely places. CACs continue to meet in their communities. Above all, it seems to be about helping communities better understand the potential “green decisions” they could be making.

“You have to educate people,” Melillo said. “You have to meet them where they are.”