By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Santa Rosa City Council has adopted a sweeping plan that tries to strike a balance between meeting aggressive greenhouse gas emission goals and minimizing the burdens on local businesses.
The plan contains 114 “action items” that range from things the city has already doing, such as enforcing green building standards, to others that will take some work to reach, including setting up a network of low-speed electric vehicles or joining a public power agency.
The council, like the Planning Commission before it, tried to navigate a path between business leaders, who urged them to back off aggressive local targets they fear could jeopardize a fragile economic recovery, and environmentalists, who pushed for tougher regulations they feel are urgently needed to curb global warming.
The result is a plan that contains far more voluntary measures than mandatory ones, but which was touted by most of those involved in the process as an important starting point that demonstrates what they described as the city’s leadership on environmental issues.
“It’s not perfect but it is a great first step and we should be very proud that Santa Rosa is the first (city) in Sonoma County to embrace this,” said Councilwoman Susan Gorin.
In the final version, instead of requiring businesses with more than 50 employees to subsidize transit passes for workers, the plan merely recommends they do so.
Another change removed an outright ban on drive-thru windows, replacing it with softer language recommending the city consider a ban someday.
Councilman Gary Wysocky couldn’t support that change. With transportation accounting for 51 percent of the community’s greenhouse gas emissions, Wysocky called it “counterintuitive” to allow more drive-thrus in the city.
Wysocky, an avid cyclist, questioned a city consultant’s conclusion that a drive-thru ban wouldn’t have a measurable impact on emission levels.
“What do you do at drive-thrus? You idle,” he said. “You can’t convince me that you are not increasing GHG emissions.”
The plan passed 6-1, with Wysocky voting against it.
The council approval was the culmination of a two-year effort, funded by a $200,000 federal grant, to establish a plan with several goals. The main one is to help the city meet its state and local emission reduction targets. California has pledged to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, a 15 percent reduction from 2007 levels. Santa Rosa set an even more aggressive standard in 2005 by aiming to reduce is emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2015, or 42 percent below 2007 levels.
By the time city planners, whose ranks have been sharply reduced by budget cuts, got around to finalizing the plan this year, however, they concluded the 2015 goal was unattainable.
“Once we actually delved into the project … we realized that we couldn’t do everything in three years,” planner Gillian Hayes told the council Tuesday.
So they moved the goal posts, and the plan now calls for meeting the goal by 2020, which is still more aggressive than the state standard.
Business groups, fearful private industry would be saddled with additional costs or regulations, urged the council to rethink the local goals.
“We’re very concerned about setting targets that are more stringent than what the state requires,” said Jonathan Coe, president of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.
Coe warned that some elements of the plan were “fraught with challenges and potential burdens” to business.
But others warned that removing too many of the “teeth” from the plan may harm its effectiveness.
Abby Young, an environmental planner with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, said the draft plan was one of the best she has reviewed.
“This plan actually has a lot of teeth,” Young said. “It’s not just a visionary plan that sits on it shelf.”
But Young warned that if too many of the mandatory requirements included in the draft plan were made voluntary, the plan might fall short of one of its main goals: streamlining the permitting process for large development projects.
A recent state law requires developments expected to generate 1,100 or more metric tons of greenhouse gases to analyze the environmental impact of those emissions. Such studies can be complex and costly, so the state provided an alternative. Projects that could show they adhered to a “robust” climate action plan would be exempted from the requirement, Young said.
Remove too many mandatory requirements and the plan might lose some of its effectiveness, she said.
But some council members said they were more concerned about the impact mandatory requirements could have on business and the economic recovery. “The teeth scare me a little bit,” said Vice Mayor John Sawyer.
Councilman Scott Bartley said a proposal to require houses and buildings to be retrofitted for energy efficiency at the time of resale — a measure stripped out by the Planning Commission — is an example of an idea that could do more harm than good.
“There is no way we’re going to burden our real estate market with that at this time,” Bartley said. “We can’t do it.”
Wysocky said he was troubled by the “false supposition that environmental measures always harm the economy.” They can, but they don’t always, he said.
There is clear evidence, he said, that the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program is helping put more people in the construction trades to work than would be without it.
Several residents decried the plan as part of an international conspiracy to strip people of property rights and claimed global warming is a hoax.
Hayes, the city planner, said she is pleased with the balance the plan ultimately struck.
“Santa Rosa is an environmental leader, and while we want to foster business and economic vitality, we are still concerned with doing that in the right way,” Hayes said.