Athens County Commissioner maps the path to Athens County sustainability

Austin Ambrose
November 16, 2016

Athens County Commissioner Chris Chmiel spoke to students, faculty and staff about his passion for sustainability and Athens County’s Sustainability Roadmap on November 4, 2016 during a Brownbag Lunch sponsored by the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs Environmental Program.

Chmiel graduated from Ohio University with a specialized studies degree in holistic transition to sustainability, a course of study he designed to guide him through his professional career.

“The whole world needs to be redesigned,” Chmiel said. “I wanted to make that a part of my life. I may not be able to change the people around me, but I can at least change myself.”

Living the sustainability movement, Chmiel built his Athens County home based on the Earthship design for constructing sustainable buildings. He used as many locally sourced materials as possible, even cutting down trees on the property to use for some of the paneling.

“It’s economically feasible to be sustainable,” Chmiel said. He commented that he has very few bills because of the design of his home and his lifestyle.

His passion for sustainability perfectly matched the climate of Athens County. Looking for an avenue to make a living, Chmiel began to research the native pawpaw fruit. The market potential of the fruit propelled Chmiel to begin Integration Acres Ltd., which distributes pawpaws to customers across the country.

The company continued to grow and offer other natural crops, as well as goat milk and cheese. Chmiel was also the force behind starting the annual Pawpaw Festival. This now 18-year-old festival celebrates the pawpaw, as well as bringing the local community together for an engaging and educational weekend.

However, Chmiel continued to seek avenues for improving sustainability and decided to run for county commissioner. In 2012, Chmiel beat four people in the primaries, using the least amount of money. With a few contentious topics being discussed during the election, he learned the need for strong leaders and how to work with the people.

“You can’t alienate people who have a different view on one hot-button topic,” Chmiel said. “We are all in this together.”

Since taking office, Chmiel has spearheaded several sustainability initiatives for Athens County, including single-stream recycling and rural trash pickup. Athens County also participated in energy efficiency programs sponsored by AEP Ohio and Columbia Gas of Ohio and exceeded their goals. The program was designed to reward counties for increasing energy efficiency in residential homes and businesses by collecting points based on the action taken.

For meeting their goals, Athens County received $85,000 to make efficiency upgrades in its public libraries. It also received assistance in developing a Sustainability Roadmap, a guide to the ongoing enhancement of energy efficiency and sustainability in Athens County. The county is responsible for tracking progress.

Chmiel walked the group through the numerous initiatives that will either be continued, enhanced or started through the roadmap. The projects, which include many existing initiatives, address issues ranging from health to water to waste. The parties involved in the plan’s creation recently approved a final draft, which will be posted on the Athens County website.

Chmiel encouraged the people in the room to get involved in the plan’s projects and highlighted the work done by Voinovich School graduates, commenting on their leadership and skills. According to Chmiel, the Voinovich School is one of the champions of the roadmap’s water plan. He called out the need for the students in the room to step up to the challenge and become leaders in their fields.

“You need to challenge yourself,” Chmiel said. “To have a challenge and to achieve it is really rewarding.”