John Sibley’s environmentalist roots run deep

Winner of the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Lifetime Achievement Award

By Maria Saporta
Friday, March 26, 2010

Although he did not know it at the time, John Sibley became an environmentalist when he was a young boy. His family then owned a working farm on a dirt road in Cobb County where they would go on weekends.

“I wanted Saturday to come so I could be out in the woods no matter what time of year,” Sibley said in a recent interview. “The love of the landscape has been at my core from day one.”

Throughout his career, Sibley has been true to that core in a variety of roles.

Back in the late 1970s, Sibley was a practicing attorney, who represented Buck and J.C. Hyde and other landowners — including his father — in Cobb County, who were actively farming their land.

He successfully argued all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court that Cobb County’s tax structure was too burdensome on working farms and forest land because it did not take into account the existing use of the property, as required by law.

“The Hydes were about to be taxed off their land,” Sibley said. By successfully reducing their tax burden, Hyde Farm was able to remain intact, and a couple of years ago, Cobb County, The Trust for Public Land and other organizations were able to preserve that property in perpetuity.

Saving Hyde Farm for the public good took 30 years, but that might never have happened if Sibley had not been successful in getting those taxes reduced.

Sibley left the legal profession to focus on public policy, a realm where he’s been ever since.

During Gov. Joe Frank Harris’ administration, he was director of the Growth Strategies Commission, which led to the Georgia Planning Act of 1989, a groundbreaking effort that received an annual award from the American Planning Association. “We framed it as Georgia’s first effort to have integrated thinking about the environment and how it relates to economic development,” Sibley said. “It raised the importance of regional thinking across the state.”

Perhaps Sibley is best known for his seven-year tenure as president of the Georgia Conservancy, a role where he showed his willingness to pursue a lawsuit against the state — and his friend Gov. Roy Barnes — on $700 million of “illegally grandfathered road projects” that violated the Clean Air Act.

“Working in his self-effacing and easy way, he gained the confidence of his fellow environmentalists and conservationists as well as leaders of the business community,” said Pierre Howard, a former lieutenant governor who is now president of the Georgia Conservancy. “One thing they learned from the outset is that John is not afraid to speak truth to power. He knows how to deliver the push-back firmly but politely, and his plain-spoken approach has made him highly respected in all quarters.”

When people describe Sibley, they often use similar language.

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said she learned to “respect his intellect and integrity” while both served on the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority (GRTA).

“He’s not only passionate, but he studies the issues and has a wealth of knowledge about the environmental issues facing Georgia and the Southeast,” Franklin said. “He’s a treasure for this city, and as a former elected official, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for his service to the city.”

GRTA’s first executive director, Catherine Ross, described Sibley as “dedicated, generous, selfless, smart, caring, hard working and tenacious” in his endeavors. “We are fortunate indeed to have John the environmentalist, John the humanitarian and John the ‘servant/leader’ in our community with a record of accomplishment and service few, if any of us, will ever attain,” Ross said.

Joel Cowan, a visionary developer and businessman, has had several opportunities to work with Sibley from the Growth Strategies Commission, the Georgia Conservancy and GRTA.

“John is very cerebral and quiet-spoken,” Cowan said. “He doesn’t just jump out right up front. He is a very independent man with a quiet style of leadership. He will stand up and vote his conviction.”

Sibley is only one of three of GRTA’s founding board members serving both Barnes and Gov. Sonny Perdue.

He has been the champion of linking transportation investments with land use and development patterns. Sometimes that has caused him to be a lone voice on GRTA’s board. But more often than not, Sibley has been able to convince his fellow directors and GRTA staff on adopting sound policies.

“If your positions are clear and transparent and they have integrity, then you will be respected by everybody,” said Sibley, who sticks to debating issues rather than getting personal with people who disagree with him. “If you don’t stick to those clear positions where the organization needs to be, that’s when you lose everybody. You will make everybody unhappy if you waffle.”

Susan Kidd, director of sustainability at Agnes Scott College, used to work with Sibley at the Georgia Conservancy.

“As many of you know, John is often the person in the room who may say the least, but most likely knows the most. He is a careful listener, but at the same time a risk-taking doer,” Kidd said at a recent event honoring Sibley. “He is a leader in what I believe to be the truest sense of the word: having the respect and credibility to bring together a variety of players, across sometimes complicated boundaries, to agree on solutions to make Georgia a better place to live.”

At the same event, Ray Anderson, chairman of Interface Inc. and a leading environmentalist in Georgia and the nation, said Sibley’s greatest achievement was “consistently serving as a respected leader for the protection of Georgia’s environment.”

Most recently, Sibley has been working as a program director for the nonprofit Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance, which works with businesses, utilities, governments, environmental groups and consumers to promote energy-efficient policies. As he sees it, enacting greater energy efficiency is “a huge missed opportunity” in helping reduce climate change and global warming.

“I’m concerned that we are losing ground on the broader sustainability issues,” Sibley said of Georgia. “On the energy front, Tennessee, North Carolina and Florida have all taken more steps than Georgia has taken in trying to be part of the green energy economy and become more efficient with energy resources.”

Energy is just one example of Georgia falling behind and “resting on its laurels,” he said. “If I look at the kinds of things that are being accomplished in our near neighbor — Charlotte — being environmentally sensitive, investing in the arts, investing in transportation modes, it appears to me that Charlotte is out-competing us as [far as] creating a community where people went to live.”

And that will be the key to the new economy.

“We have moved from a world in which people are going to go to where the jobs are to a world where the jobs are going to go to where the people are,” Sibley said. “Building communities where people want to live is the key to economic development.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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