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A settlement reached between Sonoma County’s regional climate agency and a Sebastopol environmental group with a history of suing local governments has left the countywide plan for curbing greenhouse gas emissions legally toothless.

Under terms of the settlement with California River Watch, the county’s Regional Climate Protection Authority agreed this week not to challenge a court decision that struck down the environmental document underpinning its blueprint for fighting climate change.

A Sonoma County judge sided this summer with River Watch, which sued the agency and argued its climate plan did not properly account for emissions generated outside county borders, including from tourism and the wine industry.

Local officials signaled that ruling forced them into a settlement that could hamper efforts by other cities and counties to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

“Statewide, people are looking at this particular case who are trying to combat climate change, because the methodologies do not exist that they’re advocating for,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, the climate agency’s board chairman. “Everyone is looking at each other and going, ‘Gosh, if that didn’t pass muster, what will?’ ”

River Watch has been involved in numerous cases against local governments over several decades, including last year when Santa Rosa agreed to pay $105,000 to settle a suit regarding alleged leaks and spills in the city’s wastewater collection and treatment system. River Watch’s website lists more than 40 resolved cases, among which are separate legal disputes involving the Sonoma County Water Agency, the city of San Jose, the city of Healdsburg and the city of Ukiah.

The settlement with the Sonoma County Climate Protection Authority requires the agency — a separate legal entity from the county government — to pay nearly $227,000 to River Watch, mostly to cover its attorney fees.

Climate agency officials said the decision was made to minimize the financial hit to taxpayers of a prolonged legal fight, and not on the merits of the agency’s legal case. Sonoma County Judge Nancy Case Shaffer sided with River Watch in a July ruling that the climate plan violated the California Environmental Quality Act.

“We feel very strongly that the judge made an erroneous decision and that we could be very successful if we appeal it,” said Rabbitt. “Our dilemma is, it’s not Sonoma County — it’s not a deep-pocketed entity. We don’t have any money set aside for legal fees ... It’s been a shoestring budget from the beginning.”

River Watch agreed in the settlement not to challenge any of the measures outlined in the plan — Climate Action 2020 and Beyond — to lower greenhouse gas emissions. The plan’s various strategies include ways of boosting renewable energy usage and switching to more fuel-efficient equipment.

That leaves the county and its nine cities free to pursue the plan’s measures independently, but local jurisdictions will not formally adopt the regional plan and developers cannot rely on it as a vehicle for reducing greenhouse gas emissions related to their projects.

The plan “basically becomes an advisory document,” said Verne Ball, the deputy county counsel who represented the climate agency in court.

Jerry Bernhaut, the lead attorney for River Watch, said his client did not want to block the entirety of the regional climate plan, which he said contained some “perfectly valid measures” for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“There’s nothing stopping the cities and the unincorporated county from going ahead with measures that were described in the climate action plan,” Bernhaut said. “The legal force of the climate action plan is now null and void.”

But stronger, substantive progress would require a more dramatic reshaping of an economic system that includes international product distribution and a “tourist industry on steroids” where people travel from all over the world, Bernhaut said.

“Without some real change in that economic model, I don’t think the measures that they are promoting, even though they will have some benefit in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they won’t really reach the targets that are necessary,” he said. “Our whole economic system really needs to gear down and become more localized generally. We’re just reaching a point where the carrying capacity of the planet is being exceeded.”

The climate action blueprint was created by the regional agency last year in an effort to lower greenhouse gases to below 1990 levels by 2020. All nine cities and the county government were supposed to commit to the plan, but they held off because of the lawsuit.

River Watch contended — and Shafer agreed — the environmental document supporting the plan relied on an insufficient calculation of greenhouse gas emissions.

“They were understated,” Bernhaut said, “because they did not include the full range of emissions from vehicle miles traveled in the course of distributing billions of dollars’ worth of wine and other local products — but primarily wine — and also from at least thousands of miles traveled to tourist destinations.”

But Ball and Rabbitt both said it would be impractical, if not impossible, for the agency to attempt to accurately account for emissions on such a broad scale.

Despite the unfavorable court ruling, the agency’s work will carry on, including an effort to set emission targets for 2030, Ball said.

“I think that our county is still committed and we have great people ... trying not to skip a beat,” Rabbitt said. “But the reality is, we’d be further ahead if this lawsuit didn’t happen.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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