Santa Rosa homebuilders urge city officials to rethink potential natural gas ban on new homes

Homebuilders unhappy with Santa Rosa’s plans to prohibit most new homes from relying on natural gas voiced concerns Thursday that efforts to require electric appliances are moving too fast.

The city, one of dozens in California that could require new homes up to three stories to be all-electric, held a meeting to solicit feedback from local homebuilders before a City Council study session Tuesday.

The council has yet to vote on the issue, but the natural-gas ban’s inclusion in city discussions of building codes taking effect in 2020 has stirred up some in the building community who fear a hasty process could elicit negative reactions from customers who prefer gas-fueled stoves, fireplaces and heaters.

“We’re kind of assuming this is a done deal,” said Keith Christopherson, a prominent North Bay builder. “And I gotta tell you, the response that we’ve gotten from people is that they’re really P.O.’d.”

The push to ban gas appliances - a step already taken by Berkeley and being given serious consideration by other locales including Windsor, Petaluma and Cloverdale - is connected to California’s aspiration to eliminate or offset all carbon emissions by 2045. That will necessarily involve ending the use of natural gas in buildings. Eliminating its use in new homes is a first step, while retrofitting existing buildings is a distant but implicit goal.

New state building codes set to take effect Jan. 1 already include a standard requirement for new homes to include solar panel arrays.

Requiring new homes be all-electric is a measure that the state allows cities, towns and counties to take, but they are not required to do so, and the California Energy Commission must approve any such reach beyond the state’s codes.

Builders also questioned whether the natural gas ban would truly be cost-effective, a requirement for measures like this that go beyond the default state building codes. And they noted that most homeowners and contractors were more familiar with gas appliances than with electric-only devices such as induction stove tops, which heat food with a magnetic field instead of open flames.

Keith Woods, CEO of the North Coast Builders Exchange, suggested it would be better to implement such a policy via incentives instead of a government mandate and said that builders in housing-needy Santa Rosa would build anyway and wouldn’t be the ones bearing the brunt of a ban on gas in new homes.

“It’s the constituency that has no voice that’s easy to go after, and that’s the prospective homebuyer,” Woods said, “who can’t be here, because they don’t know who they are at this point, and they have no say in it, so they’re fair game.”

Responding to Christopherson’s complaints, David Guhin, an assistant city manager, insisted that the natural gas ban was not a “done deal” and that the builders’ feedback would be helpful to present to the City Council next week.

He echoed his hope from last week: that going forward, builders would offer concrete data on top of the anecdotal evidence they brought to Thursday’s meeting.

Mayor Tom Schwedhelm, who like Councilwoman Victoria Fleming attended the meeting, said he had not made up his mind and would continue to gather information.

He said that an all-electric requirement could lead to a significant “culture shift” and said it made him question, “How aggressively can our community accept this type of change?”

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