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Santa Rosa, largest US city to ban new gas stations, advances local effort to combat climate change

Electric vehicles becoming more popular

With Santa Rosa’s vote to ban gas stations on Tuesday to curb the impact of fossil fuels on the environment, more than half of residents in Sonoma County will live in a jurisdiction where new gas stations are prohibited.

Elected leaders and environmental activists say the bans are intended to help accelerate the transition from fuel to electric vehicles and encourage the use of alternative transportation.

There were 12,242 zero-emission vehicles rolling around Sonoma County as of the end of 2021. That included:

— 6,857 battery electric vehicles.

— 5,371 plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

— 14 fuel cell electric vehicles.

Consumers have bought 1,465 vehicles in the first half of 2022. Teslas remain the most popular electric vehicle manufacturer but consumers are buying from a range of makers, including Kia and Toyota.

Electric vehicle infrastructure is also becoming more available.

There were 794 chargers across Sonoma County as of March 31.

— 551 public chargers.

— 243 shared private chargers found at workplaces and apartments that are accessible by employees, tenants and residents.

SOURCE: California Energy Commission

Santa Rosa became the largest city in the nation to ban new gas stations on Tuesday, joining other cities in Sonoma County that have led a coordinated effort to combat climate impacts of fossil fuel.

In the latest volley of a locally grown movement that supporters hope will catch on across the nation, the City Council voted 6-0 to ban construction of gas stations and expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure at existing gas stations within city limits.

The new rules will not close gas stations though it will put some limits on current operators.

Santa Rosa has 44 operating gas stations and there are two proposed stations under review at Rincon Road and North Wright Road. Gas stations that submit completed applications before the ban goes into effect in October will be considered by staff.

With Tuesday’s vote, more than half of Sonoma County residents will live in a jurisdiction that has banned gas stations. Supporters point to elected officials in Los Angeles and mid-state New York who are looking at similar ordinances.

“Santa Rosa is a community that has felt the sting of climate change and rather than stepping back from our obligations to address it … this council really feels a responsibility to do our part and tackle climate change,” Mayor Chris Rogers said in an interview. “This vote tonight acknowledges that Santa Rosa is decarbonizing and planning for the future we want.”

The ban is intended to help accelerate the transition from fuel to electric vehicles and encourage the use of alternative transportation. It comes as California begins to phase out gas-powered vehicles, with a full ban on sales of new gasoline vehicles by 2035 under a plan set to be announced Thursday.

There were 12,242 zero-emission vehicles rolling around Sonoma County as of the end of 2021 and consumers have bought 1,464 vehicles in the first half of 2022, according to data from the California Energy Commission.

“(Gas stations have) sort of been an unfortunate necessary need in our communities but there is now a realistic path forward to getting away from fossil fuels with electric vehicles,” said Woody Hastings, co-coordinator of the Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations.

Hastings said leaks from underground storage tanks can impact soil and groundwater and emissions and other fumes pollute the air. The fossil fuel industry also has long situated stations and refinery operations in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods and communities of color exacerbating health impacts on already vulnerable people, he said.

Opponents of the bans, however, have argued that limiting gas stations will drive up consumer prices and burden lower-income earners and that electric vehicles aren’t yet accessible to everyone.

Sonoma County epicenter of movement

Petaluma was the first city in the nation to ban new gas stations in 2021, bringing international attention to a local movement that had been gathering steam for years.

Sebastopol, Rohnert Park and Cotati have since approved bans and leaders in Windsor are expected to consider an ordinance there on Sept. 7.

Stand.earth, an organization that challenges corporations to improve their records on climate change, said a wave of local ordinances have followed since Petaluma approved its ban. Eight other policies have passed or were in development as of June, mostly in California, the organization said.

Hastings said Sonoma County has been at the forefront of this and other environmental movements because residents have seen the real-world impacts of the climate crisis with devastating fires over the past five years, drought, spiking temperatures and the historic 2019 floods.

Other cities were watching closely as Santa Rosa embraced a gas station ban Tuesday, Hastings said, predicting that the move could inspire others to follow suit.

The coalition behind the campaign has received interest from leaders in Los Angeles and Orange County, California’s Central Valley and from other Northern California counties as well as from officials outside the state in Ohio, New York and New Jersey, he said.

Climate action a local obligation, officials say

Under the rules advanced Tuesday, new gas stations would be prohibited in all zoning districts citywide.

The rules also would prohibit existing gas stations from expanding or modifying fossil fuel infrastructure.

Exceptions are carved into the ordinance to allow property owners to modify infrastructure if required to comply with state or federal law, improve soil or groundwater quality or to install battery-charging stations. Property owners could expand convenience stores and other non-fossil fuel infrastructure at existing gas stations.

Council member Dianna MacDonald was absent during Tuesday’s meeting.

Mayor Rogers said instituting a ban is in line with the city’s Climate Action Plan and supports the climate emergency declared in 2020.

City Council members recognize they’re responsible for leading the charge on tackling climate change and pursuing policies that will reduce carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, he said.

The ban was “a given,” he said.

“We know if folks like us don’t do it, other communities will suffer the same fate,” he said.

Former Santa Rosa Mayor Jane Bender, a longtime environmental advocate, agreed.

“If you’re responsible for the city, you’re responsible for climate change and this is the kind of thing that we have to do,” Bender told the council on Tuesday. “We have to step on the gas, no pun intended, and really curb our emissions.”

Rogers said there shouldn’t be additional investments in gas stations that are likely to be obsolete in the future. Allowing gas stations to be built would eat up land that can be used for housing and other development and require expensive work to remediate properties for future uses, he said.

“If you’re not going to be producing additional combustion engine vehicles eight years from now, why would you be laying the infrastructure for additional gas stations,” he said.

Now, the city must invest in greener practices, such as electrifying its bus fleet and improving bike infrastructure, and make electric vehicles and charging stations more accessible, Rogers said.

Recent investments from the state and federal government in climate change efforts could help, he said.

Next steps

Hastings said the coalition pushing to ban future gas stations will continue to work with Sonoma County and three remaining municipalities in the region — Cloverdale, Healdsburg and Sonoma — to draft an ordinance.

While he hopes the movement catches on across California and beyond, he noted it could be difficult with opposition that’s bound to come as larger, more car-centric communities begin examining their own bans. Politics and the culture in other states could make it hard to speed up progress on this effort, he said.

The Los Angeles Times reported in July that elected leaders in the city and in surrounding suburbs were proposing a ban. Lobbyists for gas stations intend to oppose Los Angeles’ measure if it moves forward, the Times reported.

Hastings said there has been little opposition, let alone organized opposition, to local bans but it appears the gas station industry is starting to pay attention.

That shows bans are more than just symbolic as some opponents have claimed, he said.

“The fact that there’s more attention and more pushback belies the notion that this is just symbolic or this is just a feel-good thing,” he said.

Staff Writers Mary Callahan, Emma Murphy and Kathleen Coates contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Paulina Pineda at 707-521-5268 or paulina.pineda@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @paulinapineda22.

Electric vehicles becoming more popular

With Santa Rosa’s vote to ban gas stations on Tuesday to curb the impact of fossil fuels on the environment, more than half of residents in Sonoma County will live in a jurisdiction where new gas stations are prohibited.

Elected leaders and environmental activists say the bans are intended to help accelerate the transition from fuel to electric vehicles and encourage the use of alternative transportation.

There were 12,242 zero-emission vehicles rolling around Sonoma County as of the end of 2021. That included:

— 6,857 battery electric vehicles.

— 5,371 plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

— 14 fuel cell electric vehicles.

Consumers have bought 1,465 vehicles in the first half of 2022. Teslas remain the most popular electric vehicle manufacturer but consumers are buying from a range of makers, including Kia and Toyota.

Electric vehicle infrastructure is also becoming more available.

There were 794 chargers across Sonoma County as of March 31.

— 551 public chargers.

— 243 shared private chargers found at workplaces and apartments that are accessible by employees, tenants and residents.

SOURCE: California Energy Commission

Paulina Pineda

Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park city reporter

Decisions made by local elected officials have some of the biggest day-to-day impacts on residents, from funding investments in roads and water infrastructure to setting policies to address housing needs and homelessness. As a city reporter, I want to track those decisions and how they affect the community while also highlighting areas that are being neglected or can be improved.

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