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Sonoma County’s climate action plan blocked in court ruling

PAUL PAYNE,

A judge has rejected the environmental document supporting Sonoma County’s plan for reducing greenhouse gases, finding it does not adequately account for emissions generated outside the county, in part by the wine and tourism industries.

The 41-page ruling from Judge Nancy Case Shaffer said the plan adopted by supervisors last year is based on insufficient information and violates the California Environmental Quality Act.

“It looks good on paper,” said Jack Silver, staff attorney for Sebastopol-based California River Watch, which sued the county and the Regional Climate Protection Authority over the plan. “But when you drill down into it, a lot of the actual reductions just are not there.”

County officials said Friday it was too soon to assess the consequences of Shaffer’s July 20 ruling or whether the county will appeal. It has 60 days.

County Counsel Bruce Goldstein said in an email Friday the ruling is under review.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, who sits on the protection authority board, called it “horribly frustrating.” Rabbitt said the county and its nine cities are among the first in the nation to initiate such a progressive policy. He accused River Watch of stepping on the measure in an attempt to halt all growth.

“We could just say, fine, we’re not doing it,” Rabbitt said Friday. “Are we all going to be better off because of that? Maybe that’s what they want.”

Supervisor Susan Gorin, who also sits on the protection authority panel, said it is complicated to account for the inventory of current emissions and develop actions plans specific enough to alleviate them.

“This was the county’s first go-round,” Gorin said.

Now, the county will have to amend its plan or start from scratch and create a new one, said Jerry Bernhout, the lead attorney for River Watch. The ruling means the county will pay River Watch’s attorney fees.

“It’s an excellent ruling,” Bernhaut said. “It validates all our allegations.”

The county developed its so-called Climate Action 2020 and Beyond plan last year to comply with state legislation to try to reduce greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the year 2020. The idea was that all nine Sonoma County cities would join the county and commit to the plan’s goals, although that process was put on hold while the lawsuit proceeded.

River Watch alleged the environmental document supporting the plan failed on several levels. The judge agreed.

In her ruling, she said the county did not take into account all gases generated outside the county by local commerce, which could include wine, tourism or shipments of high-tech products.

That kind of comprehensive calculation is required, Silver said.

“Every time someone is using a vehicle they are generating greenhouse gases,” Silver said. “The idea is to inventory every bit of that.”

Also, Shafer said the county’s analysis of alternatives was lacking. For example, it did not have policies requiring new industries to meet specific standards for reducing emissions, Silver said.

“They basically just blew off the analysis,” he said.

He hoped an overhaul will allow the public to have greater input and lead to “a greener county.”

“It’s a little more work,” Silver said. “But it’s a serious problem. We can’t keep playing politics with global climate change even if it means economic pain. The cost of doing nothing will be substantially higher.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.