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Michelle Mills Talks Environment and Development in Re-Election Bid

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea Michelle Mills Talks Environment and Development in Re-Election BidPhoto via VoteMichelleMills.com.
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Michelle Mills, who will appear on the ballot for Tuesday’s primary as she runs for re-election, leads the Columbus City Council’s Development Committee and became the inaugural chairwoman of the Environment Committee in 2014. As she pursues another term in office, the incumbent Democrat has a number of ideas that seem to bridge her two committees, particularly her plans for how to alleviate the city’s urban blight.

When asked about what unfinished business she hopes to tackle if she’s re-elected, she did not hesitate to answer.

“That’s easy,” said Mills. “The vacant and abandoned housing.”

Mills said she is proud of the increased penalties for abandoned commercial properties the city has put in place, noting that commercial properties take up more space than residential properties, spreading the blight into a larger area.

“When you look at corridors like Cleveland Avenue and things like that, you want to clear those up and the only way to do that is attack the commercial properties, it’s not the residential,” said Mills. “So I would say addressing the blight and abandonment issues in the City of Columbus…that would be top priority for me.”

Even so, Mills said she doesn’t want vacant lots dotting the city anymore than she wants vacant buildings, which is where her experiences on the Environment Committee come into play. Though some communities may prefer beautification of properties where buildings have been demolished, Mills said she sees a good opportunity for urban farming in vacant lots.

“Food insecurity is a major issue throughout this nation…as a city, we do have families that are hungry in our community. We also have families that are encouraging healthier habits and want more fresh produce,” said Mills. “It’s one strategy with two goals, the way I look at it.”

Recently, the Mid-Ohio Foodbank leased a parcel of vacant land in the Hilltop to start an urban farm. Mid-Ohio already operates an urban farm in Marion-Franklin, and Mills said her own St. Stephen’s Community House, where she serves as CEO, has started farm-raising fish in six, fifteen hundred gallon tanks. Mills said urban farms such as these not only provide access to healthy food, but can also teach children to appreciate agriculture and nature.

In addition to vacant and abandoned properties, Mills also has zoning on her re-election to-do list. Mills said zoning comes up frequently in community discussions about infrastructure and development and that it tends to be “a little bit more of a tension-filled situation than it should be.”

“What I’ve discovered in my tenure is that sometimes when given a good opportunity to have a discussion with neighbors and a developer, they can work it out,” said Mills. “A developer has to stay firm on the things that he or she wants for their project but also stay open to listening to the residents and the residents staying reasonable about, this is their project, their money. How do we do that and make sure that there is collaboration in that? A lot of times when we interrupt that dialogue and not…figure out how to put people in the same place in a timely manner, that’s where some of that tension comes from.”

Mills said she is thinking about a couple of pilot projects to spread education, awareness and to establish more collaborative discussions on zoning issues. Many of the solutions are simple, said Mills, like making sure people know where and when there are opportunities to have zoning conversations. She also said that fixing these problems would take some work on the part of the city’s area commissions.

“It won’t be easy because there’s just some capacity differences in neighborhoods,” said Mills. “But we have to figure it out and we have to try and that’s what I’m sure about. It’s not something that we just hope will fix itself.”

Though she knows development is the highest priority for many in Columbus, Mills cannot hide her excitement about her Environment Committee and about finding ways to make Columbus a greener city. She pointed to the start of curbside recycling, the Recycling on High program and the release of the Green Memo as successful city programs for the environment.

Mills said that the establishment of the Environment Committee shows residents how devoted the city is to forming green policies.

“I pushed for it because I felt that we needed to send a message that it’s just that important that we’re willing not only to practice it administratively but to do that when it comes to policies that govern the city of Columbus,” said Mills.

Mills called the third Green Memo, a five-year plan for reducing the city’s waste and environmental impact, released earlier this year, “a very aggressive plan.”

“I think it’s very aggressive but I think we have to do that, we have to challenge ourselves to get greener and do so in an expeditious manner,” said Mills.

Among the things discussed in the newest Green Memo are awareness campaigns, water conservation and encouraging the use of alternative transportation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“I think with the CBUS, most people see it as a convenience step, I see it as a green step,” said Mills.

Mills also said that while the city’s recycling program up and running, “there’s still some ground to be gained.” She suggested that mitigation of plastic bags and diversion of plastic from major venues could be the next focus of Columbus’ green efforts. She also praised the portion of the Green Memo advocating for more community participation in environmentalism.

“I think that all of this heavy lifting that we’re doing is because…we had to persuade the generation before us that there was something to do about this,” said Mills. “Now we’re awake. So the important thing to do here is not only to address is but to make sure we don’t create the same heavy lifting for the generation behind us, because this is heavy lifting…I mean, still there’re some that don’t believe in climate change, which is amazing to me.”

Mills said she has met with the Audubon Society and hopes the city can partner with that group and others to form more summer camp programs, giving kids accessibility to nature and science at an early age. Mills also said she hopes to encourage schools to teach more environmental lessons.

“We should be smart and good stewards of these resources,” said Mills. “If we do this well then maybe the dollars that…we’re spending now generations after us won’t have to figure out how to spend. Because we’ve created the infrastructure for a greener and more sustainable Columbus.”

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