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Windsor pulls plug on all-electric rule to stave off lawsuits by developers

Windsor has capitulated to developers who challenged the town’s ban on natural gas in most new homes, opting to end its all-electric rule to stave off potentially expensive litigation.

The Town Council on Wednesday voted unanimously, if regretfully, to delete the all-electric rule it passed in late 2019, when it became the first Sonoma County jurisdiction to ban natural gas in new residential construction under four stories starting in early 2020.

The vote to end the policy — known as a “reach code” because it’s a discretionary move beyond mandatory minimum building standards — is necessary to end the litigation under the terms of a settlement reached with the developers who sued, according to town officials.

But for Councilwoman Deb Fudge, a staunch supporter of the all-electric rule, the idea that Windsor had to abandon the climate-friendly policy under legal pressure was difficult to believe. She lamented the town’s inability to sufficiently fund its legal defense, which she estimated could cost up to $400,000, even after her efforts to drum up extra cash from private sector climate allies.

“It’s beyond comprehension that we have to fold and reverse our reach code because a rich developer can outspend us,” Fudge said.

Two developers, Bill Gallaher and the Windsor-Jensen Land Co., sued Windsor over the natural gas ban, with Gallaher also suing Santa Rosa over the city’s rule. The developers challenged the process by which the jurisdictions had passed their all-electric rules, citing the bedrock California Environmental Quality Act in their lawsuits.

Windsor’s quandary with its all-electric rule — to defend or disown — drew advocacy from across the North Bay and attention from across the state. Climate advocates urged town officials to defend the natural gas ban, seen as a small but key part of California’s struggle to curb the disastrous effects of global heating.

“A lot of people are very interested and concerned about the direction of these all-electric reach codes and making sure that they persist,” said David Moller, a Larkspur resident who expressed “dismay and sadness” over Windsor’s vote to void its natural gas ban.

Since Windsor’s early adoption of the all-electric rule, dozens of other California jurisdictions have passed natural gas bans.

Fudge noted that people outside of Windsor cared because “climate change doesn’t end at our borders.”

“If we fail, they’re afraid they could fail,” Fudge said. “This really is precedent-setting in a negative way for the state. … It’s impacting everybody else, and it’s impacting our health and safety.”

Windsor had been prepared to repeal the natural gas ban in November but delayed that vote after community members — not just in Windsor but around the North Bay — urged support for the all-electric rule and questioned the influence of contributions from Gallaher to Mayor Dominic Foppoli, whose campaigns have received more than $40,000 from the developer and his family and business associates since 2014. Some had called for the mayor to recuse himself from the issue.

At Wednesday’s Town Council meeting, Foppoli acknowledged that when he was first elected, “environmental issues were not at the top of my radar,” though he noted he’s now a proud member of the Climate Mayors’ association and joked that he bought an electric vehicle before Fudge.

Like his colleagues, Foppoli cited the financial cost of defending the litigation as a reason he’d vote to end the all-electric policy. He said the few hundred thousand dollars that the legal defense would require could be used to help Windsor meet its climate goals in other ways.

“We need to choose our battles,” Foppoli said. “It’s $200,000, $300,000 that we spend on a lawsuit, or we can invest into other things in our town, including environmental issues.”

Council members Esther Lemus and Sam Salmon ruefully concurred, setting up a 4-0 vote to end the all-electric rule.

Gallaher did not respond to a request for comment through his attorney Friday. A representative of the Windsor-Jensen Land Co. also did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Gallaher’s other all-electric lawsuit continues against Santa Rosa, but the city, which has a much larger budget and in-house legal team than Windsor, is poised to put up more of a fight to defend its natural gas ban.

That’s par for the course in Santa Rosa, where officials have been adamant since late 2019 about the need to stick with the city’s all-electric ordinance. The city has not shown any signs of settling, and the City Council is set to discuss the lawsuit again next Tuesday in closed session, according to council documents.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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