The environment and its protection as a matter of public policy were front and center Thursday as legislative candidates appeared at a forum at Earthplace, the Nature Discovery Center.

Candidates participating were state Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-143, challenged by Democrat Keith Rodgerson, and state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-136, opposed by Republican Brandi Briggs in the Nov. 4 election. David Mann, chairman of the town's Green Task Force, was the moderator. Several dozen people attended the forum.

Briggs, a Representative Town Meeting member who led off the evening, said that protecting the environment is a key concern of hers. She said she would follow the town's "green tradition" and would become a fierce advocate if elected to the House of Representatives.

"I'm a committed environmentalist," said Steinberg, adding he has solar panels on his home and drives a hybrid vehicle. He said he has advocated a number of environmental causes during his time in Hartford.

Lavielle said there's a number of things that "we can do better," where the environment is concerned. These include vehicle emissions and an upgrade of the transit system. "Right now there is little incentive for people to get out of their cars and use mass transit," she said. She said she was also a proponent of lock-boxing the special transportation fund "so that the money is only used for transportation."

Rodgerson said he has a background in working with the EPA and DEEP on environmental matters and a main concern for him is continuing to clean up industrial brownfields. He also said there should be a move away from trash-to-energy and coal.

At one point Lavielle addressed the issue of preserving open space and talked about a new bill to keep open space in perpetuity. "Connecticut has a goal of preserving a certain percent as open space and we should stick to that," she said.

Rodgerson said his goal is to expand the park system and allow residents to have access to open space and habitats. Then he said: "My opponent tried to eliminate some open space in Wilton."

In response, Lavielle said it had to do with the Department of Transportation and land used for a right-of-way. "I never, never proposed to liquidate open space," she said. After the debate, when asked to explain further, Lavielle said Rodgerson has "a vivid imagination."

Briggs said she believes global warming is an issue and said that humans have an impact on it. "But we also can do things to decrease it," she said. This would include "getting the rails in order" so more people will not be using their cars, causing a decrease in emissions.

Asked if towns should go beyond what's regulated by the state in environmental issues, Briggs said some issues should be taken on by the local officials.

She pointed to the town's plastic bag ban, saying she had used them prior to the ban. "Each community knows what's best for its people," she added.

Steinberg agreed, adding that while he was on the Representative Town Meeting, he was "one of the leaders that saw it (the plastic bag ban) get passed."

He said there also is a need to look at regional solutions to environmental problems.

On the issue of sustainability, Steinberg said it's about "creating the right balance with nature." This includes how water is used, land usage and food consumption, he said.

As for offering financial incentives for purchasing hybrid vehicles, Rodgerson said he supports municipalities waiving certain fees. But, he added, he would like to see a move to an economy where "gasoline vehicles are a thing of the past."

"We must develop an electric car infra-structure," said Lavielle, adding that businesses that provide charging stations should get tax incentives.

Steinberg said there have been some strides made in reducing pollution in the state, but more needs to be done, including deal with congestion on the highways. When cars are moving slowly, it adds to the pollution problem. He also said that "everyone wants energy independence. We don't want to rely on foreign countries," he said.