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ECO, under new boss, looks to challenges, threats

In with the new: Rachel Hodge will take over for David Weintraub as director of ECO. In with the new: Rachel Hodge will take over for David Weintraub as director of ECO.

On sabbatical last summer, David Weintraub took stock of his 33 years of work — as a community organizer (as he calls it without irony), civil rights activist, filmmaker and environmental advocate.

"It's kind of cool to be in a place where I could say what do I want to do with my life now, and not say this is who I am and this is who I'll always be," he said.
He decided to step down as executive director of ECO, the Environmental and Conservation Organization. He will still be involved part-time as a consultant behind the scenes.
"I would feel like I haven't accomplished anything if I'm not going to continue to shepherd its growth in the right direction," he said. "I want to do that while not being the person."
The person now is Rachel Hodge. The 26-year-old will lead the organization as it moves to its new offices, in the green-oriented Biz611 building on North Church Street. She inherits a group that grew under the leadership of Weintraub, a lawyer who tried to shape the political movement that led to adoption of countywide zoning in 2005.
"I think what we've done in the last six or seven years is take ECO from a nice nature group and move it into a hard-headed environmental advocacy organization that understands how to create this balance from economic green and environmental green," he said. "I think it's a different community now."
Hodge comes on board as the environmental community braces for what it regards as a new threat. The Board of Commissioners enthusiastically endorsed Commissioner Grady Hawkins' proposal for a committee to look at building regulations and other rules that businesses view as an impediment to job creation.
"My concern is that this is turning back the clock, and that's the last thing that we need," Weintraub said. "It's very difficult to say we care about jobs, and then look at the businesses that are bringing jobs into this community — look at the Sierra Nevadas, look at the Legacy Paddlesports, and these other businesses" that have cultures sensitive to sustainability.
"All this hard work about having a land development code and having rules about mega-developments and all these other issues enabled us to invite a Sierra Nevada and have a place that's inviting for them to come to," he said. "And now we're going to say we care about jobs but we're going to knock down the last peg that's protecting jobs and bringing jobs into the community. It doesn't make any sense.
"Turning back the clock doesn't make sense from a financial standpoint, from a quality of life standpoint, from anyone who wants to drink clean water, clean air, healthy food standpoint."
Hodge, a native of Savannah, has an undergraduate degree from Georgia College and a masters degree from Florida State University. She worked as an environmental educator at a state aquarium on Roanoke Island, worked as ECO's water quality manager, and worked briefly at Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy before coming back to ECO as director.
"I think there's a lot of potential, a lot of new energy, not just because of my age," she said. "We're moving, we're having our 20th anniversary. It's a new starting point for a lot of things."
She got her first taste of politicking last week when she and Weintraub visited Charlie Messer, the county commission chairman, at his Hoopers Creek store. They expressed their concern that the regulatory review committee would roll back rules that protect the environment.
"Charlie was very nice about," Weintraub said. "He said, you know what, give us some names" as nominees for the panel.
Weintraub, who made an acclaimed documentary about the 60-year-old Yiddish culture of Miami's South Beach, wants to spend more time on his next project.
"I've been working on this documentary film about Appalachian culture for three years and I haven't made a lot of progress," he said. "I think the universe is calling me to the next stage of my life."
He won't shed his save-the-earth sensibilities.
After a lunch at the Inn on Church, Weintraub wanted to take half of his veggie omelet to go. No clamshell, he told the waitress. He'd go with foil.