Climate action plan looks at things city can do to mitigate risks of climate change

Published 3:44 pm Monday, February 28, 2022

By Kelly Wassenberg

Every year schools practice fire drills and local fire departments educate students on fire safety, encourage them to do at-home fire drills with their families and even show the students what they look like with all their gear on — so the children aren’t afraid of firefighters if they one day have to pull them from a burning building. 

It’s a proactive strategy — one in which you prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

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The city of Albert Lea has already started proactively working to mitigate the risk from another type of threat to area residents: the threat of global climate change. 

The state of Minnesota established statewide greenhouse gas reduction goals of 80% by 2050 using a base year as 2005. And the city has taken steps to do its part.

In 2017, the city was selected to receive technical assistance in developing a Climate Vulnerability Assessment, which was completed the following year. In 2019, the city was supported by a second grant through the state to outline strategies and actions to support the goal of achieving climate resilience and reducing the city’s emissions. This outline, as well as the vulnerability assessment, was completed by paleBLUEdot.

The recommendations given by paleBLUEdot to address the concerns listed in the assessment are what is referred to as living plans. In other words, they are not static or concrete. There is no established order or date to have these goals met by. 

“The time constraints or order in which actions are taken are a matter of what can have a quicker turnaround time or what may have to be done first in order to achieve subsequent action items,” Albert Lea City Manager Ian Rigg said. “Other considerations on order of action were based on likelihood of being adopted by leaders and the public.”

Executing the plan will include assigning responsibility to those most aligned with the goal or task at hand. For example, the goal of adding more bike trail options would be assigned to those in charge of street plans, Rigg said.

“Once they are assigned we will meet regularly as a group to go over progress and share ideas,” Rigg said, noting these goals will be part of other review processes as well including budget justification, performance reviews and more. 

“My focus is on knowing real attempts are being made and staff know to look for and speak up about opportunities,” he said.

When it comes to any negative ramifications for residents, he said they are meant to be minimal or non-existent.

“For example, many of the actions related to property are about outreach, promotion of alternatives and even provide some incentives leading to future savings,” Rigg said. “One recent example is a policy change that adds tax abatement potential to newly constructed or rehabilitated homes.”

Rigg understands costs are a legitimate concern, regardless of how dedicated somebody may be regarding climate change.

“I think a good parallel regarding cost benefit for both residents and for staff when suggesting changes is our dedication to having a full-time fire department. Those outside the service area of the Albert Lea Fire Department will pay less in taxes if they have a volunteer-based department, but they also pay more in insurance,” Rigg said. “Collectively is the department costing an average resident more in taxes than what they pay in insurance? If they are, what are the added benefits?”

The answer to such a question could be increased safety to protect the lives of residents and lowering potential property loss.

“When we see a problem and look for solutions, we need to be honest about the payback and the deliverables,” he said.

The development and rehabilitation of private housing is just one step in many to meet multiple action items in the plan. Building and transportation improvements through promotion of higher efficiency options, infilling existing lots or creating density is something we recently achieved as a policy, he said noting now the city needs people to take them up on the tax abatement.

Other changes residents may notice include stronger enforcement of existing zoning requirements, and Rigg expects that to continue. The city wants to reduce sprawl and create more financially sustainable infrastructure, but the city has to do so wisely by looking for buildings to build more vertically so they leave a smaller footprint. 

“In the future, when we look at development plans, we have to look for this balance.”

An example of this is the redevelopment of apartments in the old Marketplace Foods grocery store. The property was reviewed by staff, who then asked developers to reduce a significant portion of the parking lot. Not only was the larger lot deemed unnecessary, it would have cost the developers more to reinstall a new parking lot given the poor condition of the existing lot and would leave a smaller footprint.

“We saved them money and added valuable greenspace in an area known to have flash flooding.”

Greenspace allows for more permeous surfaces, which reduces water runoff into storm drains and nearby waterways. Rigg said in the ’70s, cities adopted zoning requirements to make a minimum amount of parking for business, regardless of the business type. Since facing issues from the practice, including an increase in flooding, the requirements are being reversed across the country. 

Additional plans currently being looked at include saving businesses money by creating less waste. 

“If we can, for example, find ways to recycle water/food waste from our industrial plants cheaply and effectively, we will retain revenue in Albert Lea and create savings for our companies. Right now, some of our companies are shipping this waste as far as Des Moines.”

Deconstruction techniques can help the city be environmentally conscious while saving money. Instead of knocking down a building and filling dumpsters with debris, the building is deconstructed, salvaging usable materials which can be resold. While this process is more labor intensive, it saves money from waste. 

“There are doors we can open and others we have to look for and help open,” Rigg said.

This is just a start. 

“We are open to all ideas and ways to create positive changes,” Rigg said. “These action items require many steps, and those steps can come from multiple sources in and outside the city government. We set goals to reach knowing the attempt will bring positive changes without drastic upheaval. Even if we do not meet all the itemized goals, our main goal of changing how we as a city processes policy, purchases and services with a focus regarding climate change ingrained into what we do, will be met.”

Rigg is both concerned and optimistic about the implications of the assessment. 

“All aspects, and there are many, of a changing climate are serious,” Rigg said. He worries about what the rapid changes in climate could do to the land, food supply and ability to manage an increased frequency of drought and flooding. 

There is also concern about how the  impact of climate change disproportionately affects the most vulnerable members of society, as low-income housing is commonly found in more flood-prone areas. 

“The ability to rebuild when property is damaged or lost in a natural disaster is not the same for those with limited means or with disabilities. Yes, there is the FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and other support systems, but they are not complete and do not always render aid in more isolated events,” Rigg said.

In addition to doing more in stormwater reduction, retention and diversion, he voiced concern over extreme temperatures causing health concerns and potentially death for those unable to afford the means to adequately cool their homes. 

“Even if people only care about monetary-motivated ideas, consider what quick and heavy rainfall does when it creates flash flooding,” Rigg said. “It is a significant issue for development. The more land goes from being developable to floodplain in routine flash flood events, the more expensive it becomes to support new and existing development through infrastructure.”

He said the more taxes have to go up to pay for that infrastructure, the more it feels like a waste if the city doesn’t try to bend the curve on climate change by spending some of those resources now.

Rigg is also optimistic about technology currently in development, saying he believes it will grow exponentially and provide society with exponentially cleaner options, and will be much more efficient when it comes to the resources it uses. 

“That use creates the ultimate test for current technology leading to its continued and rapid advancement. Even if green alternatives cost a fraction more now, or are not as well known, its purchase and use will pay future dividends through improved confidence — both investor and consumer — and increased production.

“Unfortunately, there is no national plan coming to save us. I doubt state leaders will agree on workable answers. Action will come from local leaders and communities as it typically has,” Rigg said. “Some of our greatest advancements in pollution control and public health were started or implemented by cities and counties such as sanitation, wastewater and driving water. This is the next challenge to sustaining modern living.

“Some of what is in here are lofty goals,” Rigg said of the climate action plan, “But goals nonetheless. Not all will be achieved while others will. The truest failure by the city is not trying at all.”

 

 

 

Get involved on a personal level

“Change does not have to be some large reversal of everything we do individually. It is as simple as a momentary pause when a person thinks of an alternative at no real cost or, even better, a cost savings, and gives it a try.” — Albert Lea City Manager Ian Rigg 

Listed below are just a few of the things you can do as a citizen of Albert Lea to help protect the environment. For more ideas, view the Albert Lea Climate Action Plan at cityofalbertlea.org.

Things you can do:

• Schedule an energy audit with a licensed contractor or Freeborn Mower Electric Cooperative, which assess your home to see the best ways in which ways to save energy in your home specifically

• Unplug appliances or electronics when not in use

• Set your thermostat 2 degrees higher in the warmer months, and 2 degrees cooler during the winter

• Switch to a smart, programmable thermostat

• Convert three or more light bulbs in your home to LED bulbs

• Look into solar energy options for your home or business

• Consider alternative transportation such as walking or biking to work, using public transit or carpooling. 

• When buying or leasing a vehicle, consider hybrid or electric models

Recycle, and make sure your recyclables are clean and dry so they don’t end up in the landfill

• Use reusable shopping bags

• Give up single-use plastics by switching to reusable containers.

• Donate gently used clothing and household items to a local charity

• Use a dishwasher if you have one, research shows people use more water washing dishes by hand than running a full or nearly full dishwasher

• Reduce lawn space by replacing grass with drought resistant native plants, prairie grasses and wildflowers

• Water your lawn less often and do so early in the morning or later in the evening

• Collect rainwater to water indoor and outdoor plants. 

• Grow your own food in your yard or a local community garden

• Eat a plant rich diet, buying from farmer’s markets and buying food that is in season to reduce the distance the food has to be shipped to reach your table

• Plant fruit or nut-bearing trees or shrubs well-suited for the hardiness zone of your property

• Plant trees for shade

• Put together an emergency preparedness kit for your household

• Understand the risk of extreme weather, extreme temperatures, flooding and wildfires to your home. Take action to protect it. 

• Keep yourself and your family current with physicals, vaccinations and prescribed medications and therapies. 

• Keep breathing protection masks available for you and your family for when air quality alerts are declared.