LOWRY HILL — Several years ago, after looking over the recent gas and electricity bills for First Unitarian Society in Lowry Hill, Bruce Nelson logged into an online energy calculator and began plugging in some numbers.
It was pretty easy, recalled Nelson, a member of First Unitarian since 1974 and chairman of the congregation’s board of trustees, but the results didn’t look good. First Unitarian earned a 29 rating in houses of worship category, which meant more than 70 percent of similarly sized churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious buildings were more energy efficient.
After two years of work beginning in early 2010 — an energy efficiency drive that focused on low- and no-cost repairs and improvements to the building — First Unitarian boosted that rating to 59 (and still rising). During that period, the congregation invested about $14,100 in repair work (not counting some labor costs) and reaped an estimated $17,000 in savings, Nelson said.
Along the way, First Unitarian earned first place among houses of worship in the 2011 Energy Star Battle of the Buildings competition held annually by the Environmental Protection Agency, an honor celebrated with an open house and tour in March.
“A lot of times — not always — but a lot of times you do not need to do huge capital investments to save a lot, and I would say in almost all commercial buildings this is true,” said Nelson, who is also a senior engineer in the Minnesota Department of Commerce’s Division of Energy Resources.
Among the first projects was fixing a leaky steam valve that wouldn’t close. It’s estimated the $200 repair made in early 2010 has already saved the congregation $900.
Later came a $400 tweak to the ventilation system, an easy fix that has since saved the congregation $2,500. The examples go on.
Nelson said the congregation was “still thinking about” some larger — and far more expensive — energy efficiency projects, like updating the building’s 1950s-era, single-pane, aluminum-frame windows. But those may have to wait; like many urban religious organizations, the 385-member First Unitarian needs to be careful with how it uses its capital fund.
But Nelson said the important thing to remember was that low- and no-cost energy fixes are often very effective. The best way to get started is setting a benchmark for energy use using an online tool like the Environmental Protection Agency’s free Benchmarking Starter Kit for commercial buildings, available at energystar.gov.
The website also has a similar toolkit for homeowners.
Urban agriculture rules head to City Council
There were some compromises made along the way, but the Urban Agriculture Zoning Text Amendment made it through the City Council’s Zoning and Planning Committee March 23 in a form that urban farmers sitting in on the hearing found acceptable.
The zoning text amendment was on track for a March 30 vote by the full council, after this edition of the Southwest Journal went to press. But there was no indication the amendment, which will codify many common urban farming practices for the first time, was in for any significant changes. (Check swjournal.com for updates.)
“We’re happy with the compromises that were reached,” said Eric Larsen of Stone’s Throw Urban Farm, an urban farming operation that has agreements to cultivate empty residential lots in Minneapolis and St. Paul, including several in Southwest.
Those compromises had to do with the sale of flowers and produce at farm sites and the use of hoop houses, temporary structures that act like greenhouses and are used to extend the growing season.
City staff initially recommended allowing farmstand sales up to 25 days per year, but that recommendation met with resistance from council members Meg Tuthill (Ward 10) and Lisa Goodman (Ward 7), who both cited constituent concerns about the noise and traffic that could be associated with the sales. Some types of smaller urban farms, called market gardens, would be allowed in residential areas under the new rules.
The committee agreed to a compromise of 15 sale days, but there was talk of revisiting that limit next year.
The committee also agreed to limit the height of hoop houses to 6-and-a-half feet on most occupied residential lots. At other locations, including vacant residential lots, hoop houses up to 12-feet tall would be allowed.
UPDATE: The Urban Agriculture Zoning Text Amendment was approved by a unanimous City Council at its March 30 regular meeting.
The council also approved a staff direction written by Ward 2 City Council Member Cam Gordon instructing planning staff to develop more detailed rules for anaerobic digesters after the Minneapolis Pollution Control Agency completes an ongoing review of its composting rules. Another amendment that would have allowed schools to keep chickens did not pass.
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