2 more Sonoma County towns ready to ban new gas stations

The “beginning of a movement” with expected Santa Rosa passage prohibition next week, leader says.|

Santa Rosa and Windsor are poised to consider a building ban on new gas stations within their limits — joining a growing list of Sonoma County locales that have adopted similar initiatives.

“This is the beginning of a movement,” said Woody Hastings, co-coordinator of the Sonoma County-based grassroots organization, Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations, which was formed in 2019. “When Santa Rosa votes next week to approve the ban, a majority of the cities in the county will be behind it.”

The bans, should Santa Rosa and Windsor adopt them in the coming weeks, would cement the region as a leader in this initiative.

There are 138 gas stations in the county. Petaluma, Sebastopol, Cotati and Rohnert Park have all already adopted bans.

Petaluma started the movement in 2021 when it passed its ban. It is believed to be the first city in the country to do so, resulting in worldwide coverage at the time.

“We are the tip of the spear,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said of county cities’ leadership on new gas station bans.

Several local leaders who support banning additional gas stations say the benefit lies in the message conveyed in saying, “No.”

“The main impetus for this is it’s an opportunity for local governments to clearly state a policy related to fossil fuels, and the importance of transitioning away from fossil fuels,” said Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority.

Hopkins, who serves on the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority Board of Directors agreed, saying the county needs to see more investments in electric vehicle infrastructure, including charging stations, bike and pedestrian pathways and stronger public transit. She noted a local push for free public transit in the county.

“We need to put our money where our mouth is,” Hopkins said.

Upcoming discussions

The Santa Rosa City Council will take up the discussion during a public hearing Tuesday.

The city’s Planning Commission and the Planning and Economic Development Department have recommended the council pass a prohibition on any new gas stations, as well as block expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, such as gas pumps, at existing gas stations.

Santa Rosa's 46 gas stations plotted on a map show that 44 of them are in areas where low income and communities of color overlap, according to 2020 census data. (Amy Nicholson/City of Santa Rosa)
Santa Rosa's 46 gas stations plotted on a map show that 44 of them are in areas where low income and communities of color overlap, according to 2020 census data. (Amy Nicholson/City of Santa Rosa)

Santa Rosa has 44 operating gas stations and two proposed gas stations under review, one at 43 Middle Rincon Road and the other at 874 North Wright Road.

The proposed ban would allow the two proposed gas stations — and any other applicants who apply before the effective date — to be considered in Santa Rosa. The ordinance would take effect 30 days from its second reading at a City Council meeting.

The Windsor Town Council is due to discuss a zoning ordinance on first reading at its Sept. 7 meeting.

Mayor Sam Salmon, who backs the ban, rides a bicycle around town and has cut down his driving to four times a week, said he believes there isn’t “much call” for new gas stations in Windsor at this point.

“The real question is why would we need more gas stations when we’re trying to move toward electric cars, and for me, trying to get people to drive less?” Salmon asked.

The council directed town staff to create an ordinance in accordance with its declaration of a climate emergency in 2019 and the county’s climate protection authority.

The four gas stations in town would still be allowed to remodel and could rebuild in case of a fire or natural disaster.

More than a symbol

Many environmental leaders see the move as more symbolic than anything, but Hastings couldn’t disagree more.

“This is not symbolic, this is not a statement,” he said. “There are four gas station proposals pending in Sonoma County right now — two in Santa Rosa and two in unincorporated county,” he said. “We’re stopping something. … Every time you open a new gas station you have created a new toxic waste site.”

Hastings pointed to underground gas tanks, which sometimes leak and can even get into groundwater.

“It’s the toxic nature of gas stations,” he said.

Starting in 2025, following a state law passed in 2014, all one-walled metal underground fuel storage tanks must be yanked, he pointed out.

“We hope to see in the next 10-20 years the phasing out of infrastructure that supports gas stations.”

And by doing that, he said, that allows jurisdictions of all sizes to spend more money on alternative technologies.

Kevin Slagle, director of strategic communications at Western States Petroleum Agency, a nonprofit trade association representing petroleum companies in Arizona, California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, criticized the bans.

“We worry these types of bans across the state make the commodities more scarce,” Slagle said.

He urged jurisdictions to instead focus on investments in other transportation infrastructure.

“The best way to reach our climate goals, whether locally or statewide, is to not ban things but to make (electric vehicles) better so they’re more affordable, make public transportation better so it gets us to more places,” Slagle said. “Those are the types of solutions that help families and businesses.”

He said the adoption of new gas station bans began in the North Bay, and expects to see more jurisdictions throughout the state follow suit.

As more cities explore and adopt bans, it becomes easier for those following to implement similar ordinances, Smith said.

“If you are the first to do it then you are assessing the impacts in your city, but you are also writing the book on it,” Smith said. “As others look on it from different perspectives, it grows the brain trust around the topic.”

Trading problems

The owner of Keith & Don’s Flying A Gasoline, at 1311 4th St. in Santa Rosa, said he has concerns about the proposed ban when it comes to trading one form of pollution for another — such as the production and disposal of lithium batteries for electric cars.

He also questions how this effort might impact jobs.

“Sometimes you have to think about it beyond technology, such as the workforce,” said Shawn, who asked that his last name not be used. “I’m all about change and the environment, but there’s a lot of things that aren’t being discussed.”

Responded Hastings, neither workers nor owners the coalition spoke to thought of gas station jobs as “super high quality.” As far environmental trade-offs, “No source is perfect,” he said. “But the burning of fossil fuels is definitely a contributor,” and supersedes those problems.

“I don’t dismiss those concerns at all. (But) we don’t want to make the same mistakes of the past,” Hastings said.

Sonoma County is just in the beginning stages of exploring a similar policy for the region’s unincorporated areas.

Hopkins and Supervisor Susan Gorin have been vocal in calling for the Board of Supervisors to make such investments and adopt a ban on new gas stations.

Sonoma County’s permitting department is in the process of hiring a consultant to explore such a policy.

Hopkins said she hopes to see a proposal come before the board early next year.

“Kudos to the cities that are considering this,” she added.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports. You can reach Staff Writer Kathleen Coates at 707-521-5209 or kathleencoates@att.net.

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