Kristy Otte at the Climate March in Washington, D.C., in 2017

Kristy Otte: Environmental Committee Keeps West St. Paul Green

Caption: Kristy Otte at the Climate March on Washington in 2017.

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This is part of an ongoing series talking to the chairs of West St. Paul committees and commissions.

Formed in 2008, West St. Paul’s Environmental Committee helps protect the environment on a local level. Kristy Otte has served on the committee since 2016 and as the committee chair since 2017.

The Environmental Committee’s work led to a recent GreenStep Cities award in recognition of reaching the program’s second step. The program is designed to help cities meet environmental sustainability goals by implementing specific best practices.

“If we can create a healthy environment in our own backyards, take steps in local policy, and work for improvement in our own communities, then we are participating in meaningful environmental work that benefits the greater good.”

Kristy Otte

Kristy Otte: Teacher, Organizer, Moderator

Otte is an English as a Second Language (ESL) and Achievement via Individual Determination (AVID) teacher at Heritage E-STEM Middle School. She also teaches a course for Hamline University’s Graduate School of Education. As if that’s not enough, Otte is also an organizing leader, secretary, and negotiator for the West St. Paul Federation of Teachers with Education Minnesota.

Otte has lived in West St. Paul since 2003 and loves spending time with pets, traveling the world, and volunteering with local animal rescues.

You may have recognized Otte as the moderator at the recent town hall with U.S. Representative Angie Craig at Moreland.

Talking With Kristy Otte

We talked with Otte about what’s involved in the Environmental Committee:

What exactly does the Environmental Committee do? Can you give us a glimpse of the kind of things you cover and how much work is involved?

From the city website: “The Environmental Committee is responsible for providing the residents of West St. Paul with opportunities to bring a comprehensive perspective to greening, sustainability and beautification issues. This includes improving the quality of the environment, adding to the beautification and aesthetic of the city.”

I think our work goes beyond this, however, as we advise on site plans for new developments in the city and start environmental initiatives in the city. As chair, I preview upcoming agendas and facilitate the once per month meetings. I also communicate regularly with our city liaison. There are a few of us who do subcommittee work between the monthly meetings.

Why do you volunteer to serve on the committee? Why is this work important to you?

My background in environmental education has led me to pursue community action for climate, sustainability efforts, and conservation. In 2015, I was chosen to be an educational ambassador to COP21, also known as the Paris Climate Accord with the United Nations. After this poignant
event, and the national political discourse that followed, I felt the need to participate locally in environmental work.

Environmental work for me has felt very overwhelming at times, given what we know about climate change, species loss, and other impacts on our lives. Local work seems small but has connections to broader environmental actions. If we can create a healthy environment in our own backyards, take steps in local policy, and work for improvement in our own communities, then we are participating in meaningful environmental work that benefits the greater good.

My niche in the environmental committee has really been leading the GreenStep City subcommittee with Tara Wright. The program is one way cities can mitigate the effects of climate change and human impacts on the environment, despite a larger political discourse that works against the efforts. West St. Paul is just in the beginning phases of the program with lots of work ahead.

How has the committee made things better in West St. Paul? And where do we still need to improve?

Our committee has advised on local site development plans, which has led to many sites including native, pollinator friendly plantings. West St. Paulers may notice more prairie flowers in our city in private and public lands as a result of our committee’s pressure and advice. We recommend native tree plantings for supporting local wildlife habitat. We have also made recommendations for rain gardens and more permeable surfaces in construction to help offset pollution traveling from our parking lots and roads to our water supply in the Mississippi. Our committee would like to develop official language on recommended building and landscape
practices so that this becomes the norm.

For city functions, and aligned with Green Step actions, our committee has supported ordinances around sustainable purchasing, lighting and energy use, and recycling that the City Council has ultimately passed.

But there’s always room to improve. We faced a lot of resistance to the climate change resolution from a few previous City Council members. That resolution is actually tied directly to the approval of the Green Step Cities Plan, so it’s an important piece. Thankfully, the current City Council just approved it unanimously. Again, education is necessary to have real change.

Our current committee is very passionate about the environment and often wants more progress than we attain. Our committee presents ideas, but action does not happen as quickly as we’d prefer. Sometimes fighting for progress requires a lot of patience and persistence.

How can people get involved if they care about the environment and want to do something locally?

Our committee is working toward a few initiatives this year in accordance with Green Step Cities:

  • Bird City USA: This program would designate a local park as a wild bird friendly environment and recognize International Migratory Bird Day in May. Fortunately in West St. Paul, we have a few park options for this. I would encourage residents to learn more about backyard wildlife habitats. When Bird City in West St. Paul begins, we will need a group of volunteers to maintain the bird habitat in the park.
  • Dark Sky: We are also working on Dark Sky practices with new developments. At this stage, we are advising practices, but we would like to create building code that adheres to Dark Sky recommendations. This would curb light pollution and reduce energy use in the city. Education on Dark Sky practices is needed and may be offered at an upcoming city meeting.
  • Climate change plan: Our committee would like to have a climate change sustainability plan. This is also part of Green Step Cities. The recently passed resolution is a good step forward, but a sustainability plan would allow us to take action locally.

Residents are always welcome to attend a committee meeting (or apply to serve on the committee!). Moreover, there are many other ways to get involved here in West St. Paul:

  • Citizen scientists: Many organizations look to community members to be citizen scientists in doing bird counts, wildlife surveys and observations, and maintenance of native pollinator lands.
  • Adopt-a-Drain: Sign up online to clean up a drain in your neighborhood and help keep trash and debris from going into lakes, streams, and rivers.
  • Composting: There’s a composting site right here in West St. Paul at Thompson Park.
  • Recycling: The Recycling Zone in Eagan will take many recyclable materials that aren’t picked up at the curb, including household chemicals, electronics, and even holiday lights.

There are so many things people can do it can be overwhelming for me to settle on one. All of this comes with education, though, and that is the piece that is often not done.

What do you love about West St. Paul?

West St. Paul is a great community to be a part of—superb schools, friendly neighbors, pretty parks, and unique local businesses.

Thanks to Kristy Otte for serving on the Environmental Committee, working to make West St. Paul a better city, and sharing her insights with us.

Next in our ongoing series talking with the chairs of West St. Paul committees and commissions, we talk with Mike Petrasek, chair of the Parks & Recreation Advisory Committee. Previously, we talked with Planning Commission Chair Morgan Kavanaugh and Mark Tessmer, former chair of the Charter Commission (OK, he was the chair when we talked, but then a week later he stepped down as chair.)

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