Welcome to the cusp, where a movement makes the leap from good idea to no-brainer.
For the green movement getting to the cusp has been a long time coming, but Tom Prol is glad to be on it. Prol, an environmental and land use attorney with Lydhurst-based Scarinci & Hollenbeck, says environmentally sound building and land use are no longer just great ideas to be stashed away for “some day.” As once-prohibitively expensive technologies become more affordable they merge with the push to reduce reliance on traditional fuels, and the marriage is making it easier to build green.
Prol will present “Making Green by Building Green” as part of the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education’s Green Seminar on Thursday, April 22, at 9 a.m. at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick. The seminar also features presentations from New Brunswick accountant George Livanos, state bar association co-chair Harry McLellan, and Darren Molnar-Port of the state Department of Community Affairs. Fee: $119. Call 732-214-8500 or visit www.njicle.com for more information.
Though Prol is partial to green, his background is slightly more colorful. Few lawyers, for example, can recite Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” on cue and fewer still cite the reason for that ability as a leftover from his days doing “guerrilla theater” as a student environmentalist in college. A 1991 graduate of Emory University, where he was president of the student environmental committee, Prol openly embraced the philosophy of the Lorax, who spoke for the trees and has become synonymous with efforts to save them. Prol, in fact, once held a funeral for seven acres worth of trees destined to be cleared in favor of a hotel outside the campus. The rite involved a small coffin full of sticks presented to the dean. The display didn’t stop the hotel, but it did spare the area from being entirely clear cut.
The son of a bricklayer and a medical secretary, who grew up — and still lives — in Franklin, Prol spent two years in Nepal with the Peace Corps directing sanitation operations in the Himalayas. He worked as an EPA enforcement officer while attending New York Law School and interned at CNN’s environmental news unit — which shed a lot of light on the student committee’s efforts stop Emory’s plans for building an on-campus incinerator.
These days, slightly older and more practical, Prol says he has lost some of his naivete but none of his zeal for the cause. “Law school changes the way you think,” Prol says. “It helps me be a better advocate; it hones the way you have to present your ideas.” In his more pragmatic incarnation, Prol says he likes to approach the issue of green construction and renovation with an eye toward environmentalism’s two-edged sword: the right thing to do versus the money with which to do it.
“There’s duty and money,” Prol says, “and if you can harness the good intentions along with making it cost effective, then we can get there.” And while he is acutely aware that environmental progress has been slow simply because of the cost of Earth-friendly technologies, Prol still uses a basic faith in humanity to underscore his optimism. “Don’t underestimate people’s sense of wanting to do the right thing,” he says.
Bottom lines and good ideas. Though budgets still carry more weight than ideas, Prol remains optimistic — largely because technological advances continually lighten the bottom line. Solar panels, for one thing, are far cheaper than they used to be, and an effective rooftop project requires fewer panels to use sunlight more efficiently, and for a longer time. In fact, his law firm is planning to install solar panels on its offices later this year.
Tax credits, too, are easing economic pressures, particularly in environmentally progressive states like this one, Prol says. New Jersey looks very favorably on homeowners who use alternative energy resources. Thick out-of-pocket costs to install solar panels or windmills are shrinking, meaning a better return on investment for anyone who builds with the renewable resources.
However… Much is still to be done, Prol says. Up-front costs for solar panels, windmills, and geothermal units, though shrinking, can be in the thousands. Also, though New Jersey has been a leader in green-friendly policies, Prol would like to see better incentives for developers to build green from the ground up.
The 1987 case of Medici vs. BPR Co. set up the state’s desire to cut developers breaks when they build facilities deemed to have inherently beneficial value, such as a medical center. Prol believes that similar, environmentally flavored legislation would greatly encourage builders to embrace recycled or eco-friendly materials from the beginning of a project.
Imminent legislation. According to Prol, who recently met with Governor Jon Corzine’s policy director, Adam Zellner, New Jersey is about to start “dropping some bombs” in terms of environmental legislation. Though the details are a closely guarded secret, Prol says greener local-level land use laws and building design codes are about to be introduced, to coincide with the DEP’s eagerly awaited state Energy Master Plan revision.
Prol himself says he has no idea what Zellner and Governor Corzine are planning to release, he only knows it will greatly affect how new construction in the state will work. Buildings, particularly commercial ones, Prol says, emit enormous amounts of energy, and the state’s pending policy changes could go a long way toward reversing those emissions.
Talking trash. New Jerseyans rarely find “What exit?” to be a funny joke, but the old chestnut cradles a kernel of truth. New Jersey, though the fourth-smallest state in the union, is strewn with a dense network of heavily trafficked highways. The trouble is, cars, trucks, buses, and vans are all some of the biggest offenders to air quality today. And within this category, one type of vehicle is particularly offensive — garbage trucks.
New Jersey, much to its critics’ delights, does generate and transport an immense amount of waste. Not all of it stays here, but the very process of ridding it requires putting it on wheels. And garbage trucks not only eat up petroleum, they allow solid waste to decay. The by-product? Methane.
A number of landfills reclaim methane for use as fuel. The Burlington County Landfill, in fact, sells its reclaimed methane to neighboring Maguire Air Force Base. Prol represents several landfills that take such a proactive approach, but he says the underlying reality is that transportation of the waste itself poses as much trouble as just letting solid waste rot in the ground. Recent studies into rail-based out-of-state waste transport are encouraging, he says. The results show that carting waste to out-of-state sites by train greatly reduces the amount of fuel used by trucks taking the same journey. “If you’re going to do something, you’ve got to do it with the transportation industry,” he says.
The grand gesture. The mechanics of environmentalism are complicated, Prol says, but he insists the promise is vast. Making green design and construction palatable will take creativity and faith, but it will also take laws that guide builders toward a greener future. This is, unsurprisingly, where Prol feels he can help the most, in the nuts-and-bolts world of land use law and in the little steps that convert good ideas into real dollars.
Still, Prol does not dismiss the influence a few major players in the commercial world could have, were they to embrace green design and construction with both arms. Al Gore, he says, has propelled the cause of environmentalism much further than it would have been without him. But significant change could certainly benefit from national hardware stores, major construction companies, and multi-chain retailers embracing eco-friendly practices.