New gas station bans working their way through Sonoma County communities
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.”