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New gas station bans working their way through Sonoma County communities

Local government action on banning new petroleum fuel pumps

Petaluma — Adopted March 1, 2021. First in the nation.

Rohnert Park — First council vote Tuesday, March 8. Adoption expected March 22.

Sebastopol — First council vote scheduled for April 5.

Santa Rosa — Approved by council’s climate action subcommittee. Headed to planning commission and City Council next.

Sonoma County — To be discussed during general plan workshop in April.

Windsor — Ordinance headed to planning commission on May 10, and then, presumably, to City Council, according to town Councliwoman Deb Fudge.

Cotati — Staff developing draft ordinance.

Cloverdale — Has been discussed. Council watching how larger, fully staffed cities proceed, according to Councilwoman Melanie Bagby.

Healdsburg — No action. Council working on climate committee and climate mobilization strategy, according to Councilwoman Ariel Kelley.

Sonoma — No action yet.

Maybe 138 gas stations in Sonoma County is enough for now. Or really, forever.

That’s the thinking behind a wave of new ordinances making their way through local governments around the region that would prohibit permit applications for new petroleum fueling stations or expansions.

While it may be years yet before electric vehicles dominate the roadways, elected officials think planning ahead for a successful transition away from planet-fouling, gas-powered cars makes sense. And that includes putting a stop to any more fuel pumps in the county.

The Rohnert Park City Council took the first vote on its new ordinance Tuesday and is expected to adopt a citywide ban on new gas pumps at its March 22 meeting. The Sebastopol council will take up the matter April 5, when it considers a draft ordinance already approved by the planning commission. And Santa Rosa City Council’s climate action subcommittee has sent a recommended ban to its planning commission which, if OK’d there, would move onto the City Council later this year.

Sonoma County supervisors are scheduled to consider how they, too, might approach the issue during a general plan workshop in April.

“This is a really important signal that we are transitioning away from the internal combustion era and into the future,” said west county Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. As the county representative on the Regional Climate Protection Authority, she was among the agency directors who voted unanimously last year to recommend all communities adopt bans on new fueling stations.

Since then, all municipalities in the county except Healdsburg and Sonoma have begun moving forward on ordinances or plans. Calistoga, in neighboring Napa County, adopted a ban in December, and American Canyon has a moratorium in place as it pursues a ban of its own.

No one plans to prevent existing gas stations from continuing to operate.

But in the midst of an existential climate crisis, with the state pushing for all new car sales to be zero-emission by 2035, there is no point for cities to oversee investments in new projects that are likely to be obsolete before their life expectancy is reached, especially at the risk of public and environmental health, supporters say.

Santa Rosa, for instance, declared a climate emergency in 2020 and adopted a goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2030, just eight years from now.

“There is no credible path to get there that involves building infrastructure that, 40 years down the road, is going to be carbon based,” said Mayor Chris Rogers, chairman of the City Council’s climate action subcommittee.

“The main driver in our conversation is making sure Santa Rosa has the infrastructure of the future,” Rogers said, “and it’s an infrastructure that is going to make sure we don’t have environmental impacts down the road.”

The move to block new gas station development is peculiarly focused in Wine Country, pioneered largely by the city of Petaluma, which garnered international attention when it became the first community in the nation to pass a permanent ban on new gas stations March 1, 2021.

The city had already had an emergency moratorium in place for two years, driven by concerns over controversial plans by Safeway to build a 16-pump mega-station on the east side of town. The project was ultimately approved, but Safeway abandoned it in face of lawsuits from neighborhood groups.

Mayor Teresa Barrett said when the city began to examine its rules around gas stations, it found that nothing in state law prevented them from being built near schools, as the Safeway one would have been. In its research, the council realized that the 16 existing stations in Petaluma meant the city’s 60,000 residents had multiple fueling options within a five-minute drive already.

Though interview requests about the ban still come in from media outlets across the country and outside it, “there’s been no local pushback,” said Barrett, who also was mayor last year. As a news story, though, the decision “sure has legs,” she said.

Petaluma’s vote lent momentum to a movement that also was flaring up elsewhere in the county through a local organization called CONGAS, or the Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations. The group emerged from battles to defeat plans for a 16-pump station at Highway 116 and Stony Point Road near Cotati and on Highway 12 at Llano Road, between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.

Cotati Mayor Mark Landman, also a director for the Regional Climate Protection Authority, said he pushed the agency last summer to adopt a recommendation for all local governments to follow Petaluma’s lead.

“We see it as noncontroversial and just a logical step,” said Landman, who hoped his city would have a draft ordinance to review by midsummer. “We’re not banning gas stations.”

CONGAS’ co-coordinator Woody Hastings views the ordinances as aligning with the needs of a suffering planet.

“Sonoma County and all the cities in Sonoma County have adopted climate emergency resolutions, and we assert that if a climate emergency resolution is to mean anything, it is stop doing things that are part of the problem,” Hastings said. “In the case of gas stations, what we experience right now is there are plenty of gas stations.”

And while there is no urgency to develop more, there are plenty of reasons not to, including noise, lighting, potential leakage and pollution, he said.

There’s also frequency with which gas stations are located in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods and communities of color, local officials said.

“With every drop of gasoline that you put in your tank, there’s a trail of devastation that goes all the way back to Nigeria, Venezuela, Kern County, California,” Hastings said. Oil wells, refineries, transmission lines all most often affect people who already are vulnerable, he said.

“And then the gas stations themselves. There are egregious local environmental impacts,” Hastings said.

Sam Bayless, policy director with the California Fuels and Convenience Alliance, disputed claims about leakage risks and the threat to soil and groundwater.

Industry representatives say modern, double-walled storage tanks and leak alarms have raised the standards of fueling infrastructure and made them safer than ever.

But Bayless mainly objected to any interference in development of new fueling stations because of what he said would be the impact on meeting the need for electric vehicle charging facilities through hybrid petroleum and EV fueling stations.

“There’s companies that have spent about 100 years at this point finding the best locations for chargers and selling transportation fuel to customers,” Bayless said. “They’re already in the business, and it really just makes sense for these people to continue serving consumers.”

With the extremely high cost of building EV charging stations — about $300,000 for four EV fast chargers before breaking concrete, laying conduit, buying permits or installing electrical power, he said — it doesn’t pencil out without being able to sell gas.

In addition, station owners commonly want to upgrade their facilities, taking out and putting in new pumps, which would be prohibited. And there will still be a need to provide gas for older cars and trucks on the road, as well as emergency vehicles and aircraft, long after all new sales are electric vehicles, Bayless said.

Ban supporters represent “a lot of folks who may have the best intentions but really don’t understand how things get moved around in California,” he said. “I really don’t think we’re ready for that.”

Parm Bassi, owner of the Forest Hill Market on Highway 116 in Monte Rio, has been trying for the past year to get a permit from the county for three fueling pumps at his convenience store.

Though his stalled application would not be affected by any forthcoming county ordinance, he said there is a definite need for fuel in Monte Rio, with the nearest gas 4 miles away in Guerneville and nothing west before Jenner and nothing south before Sebastopol or Bodega Bay.

He said people come in the store every day wondering where they can find the closest gas. Often their tanks are so low that he lends them some from 5-gallon containers he keeps for his emergency generators. It happens so often that several fuel containers he normally keeps full were all empty last week.

He had hoped to offer premium gas and have EV charging equipment, as well, though he’s lately been thinking of giving up his application.

Though he owns electric and hybrid vehicles, as well as gas-powered, he thinks a mix of needs is inevitable.

“I’m 64 now, but going forward, as long as I will live, I doubt it’s going to be replaced 100 percent by electric vehicles. We will still need the diesel. We will still need the gasoline.”

But Hopkins, in whose district his store is located, said she thought there were plenty of gas stations to go around.

“Honestly, our communities, our locals, know where the gas stations are and plan accordingly, just like someone with an electric vehicle knows where the charging stations are and plans accordingly,” she said.

“It’s not about making it any harder for people,” said Matt Krogh, director of the SAFE cities campaign for Stand. Earth, an organization that challenges corporations to improve their records on climate change. “We know that we’re going to have to be all electric. We know that it’s going to happen sooner or later. We know we have to have a new normal.”

And it’s all happening “much sooner than most people think, and I think the reason it seems to be symbolic at the moment,” Krogh said.

Rogers, the Santa Rosa mayor, said he believes his city’s 46 gas stations are ample, particularly given how close together many of them are.

The 7-Eleven store and gas station on Middle Rincon Road at Highway 12, for example, already is seeking a permit to add six pumps, or 12 fueling positions, even though it’s across the street from a Chevron gas station. It’s one of two pending gas station applications in the city. The other is at Highway 12 and North Wright Road, where permission is sought for six pumps, city staffers said.

Rogers said he was struck by maps showing stations in relation to socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods and communities of color.

All but two of the stations are in areas where those two data sets overlap, he said. They also are largely on the Highway 101 and Highway 12 corridors, meaning residents already are exposed to traffic and potential environmental ills even before the petroleum stored there and the emissions from fueling gets factored in.

“This policy gives us the push to transition, while also allowing the needs of the community to be met, while investing in the infrastructure that we need in the future,” Rogers said.

“I think because Petaluma is the first to do it in the nation, I think many people view it as a radical environmental policy, and I would argue that it’s not,” Rogers said. “I think the thoughtful approach of not building new ones but allowing the other ones to be phased out by market demands is a smart one.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Local government action on banning new petroleum fuel pumps

Petaluma — Adopted March 1, 2021. First in the nation.

Rohnert Park — First council vote Tuesday, March 8. Adoption expected March 22.

Sebastopol — First council vote scheduled for April 5.

Santa Rosa — Approved by council’s climate action subcommittee. Headed to planning commission and City Council next.

Sonoma County — To be discussed during general plan workshop in April.

Windsor — Ordinance headed to planning commission on May 10, and then, presumably, to City Council, according to town Councliwoman Deb Fudge.

Cotati — Staff developing draft ordinance.

Cloverdale — Has been discussed. Council watching how larger, fully staffed cities proceed, according to Councilwoman Melanie Bagby.

Healdsburg — No action. Council working on climate committee and climate mobilization strategy, according to Councilwoman Ariel Kelley.

Sonoma — No action yet.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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