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Windsor poised to repeal natural gas ban opposed by developers

Windsor is preparing to repeal its ban on natural gas in most new homes as part of a tentative settlement with Bill Gallaher, the politically connected Sonoma County developer who has sued the town over its new climate-friendly mandate.

The Town Council on Nov. 18 put off the move under advice from Town Manager Ken MacNab after a flood of support from community members urging Windsor to defend its 2019 ban, which requires all-electric appliances in most new homes under three stories. MacNab had asked for more time “to review some of the legal points in the litigation.”

Under the proposed settlement, Gallaher and Windsor-Jensen Land Co., another developer that sued the town over the ban, would drop their lawsuits in exchange for a repeal of the all-electric rule, according to town documents. Town officials said they have pursued a deal to avoid costly litigation — taking an opposite tack from Santa Rosa, where City Hall is steeled for its own court fight with Gallaher over similar all-electric rules for new housing.

The all-electric measures are meant to align cities with California’s goal of fighting climate change by eliminating fossil fuel use associated with buildings. And supporters, including Windsor residents and elected officials and climate advocates from across the North Bay, have called on Windsor to stick with its rules while questioning the influence of political contributions that Mayor Dominic Foppoli has received from Gallaher. Some are calling for the mayor to recuse himself from the matter.

All of the written public responses Windsor officials received and published ahead of the Nov. 18 Town Council meeting were in support of the town’s natural gas ban.

“It would really be an extreme disappointment if a millionaire developer was able to bully the town out of doing all the amazing work to support the climate that this town does,” Windsor resident Jennifer Silverstein said at the virtual council meeting, noting that Windsor’s response to the Gallaher and Windsor-Jensen lawsuits could have ramifications beyond the town. “If they succeed in bullying us, they will bully Sonoma County and they will bully California.”

The five-member council is set to discuss the litigation again Wednesday in closed session. Its next regular meeting is scheduled for Dec. 16.

Foppoli, who was elected mayor of Windsor earlier this month with about 44% of the vote in a four-person race, said he’d never felt pressure from Gallaher to vote any certain way and didn’t plan to recuse himself despite calls from some to do so.

“I learned that in politics years ago: You’re never going to make everybody happy,” Foppoli said.

Attempts to reach Gallaher through his attorney in the all-electric litigation, as well as through a business associate and via emails to his companies, Gallaher Homes and Oakmont Senior Living, were unsuccessful on Friday and Monday.

The tentative settlement has not been finalized or made public, but its key terms are expected to include Windsor rescinding its all-electric rule, according to town documents and Town Attorney Jose Sanchez. The settlement also is expected to include language calling for all parties pay their own legal fees and will note that the city stands by its procedure for adopting the ban under a so-called reach code, which the developers had challenged in their lawsuits.

“The town still believes the process it followed was correct,” said Sanchez.

Late last year, Windsor was the first municipality in Sonoma County to adopt a rule prohibiting natural gas hookups in most new homes. It was followed soon after by Santa Rosa. Both were part of a wave of more than three dozen California municipalities that have passed some sort of all-electric ordinance over the past year or so, according to a running tally maintained by the Sierra Club. The all-electric rules in California are meant to get the state closer to its goal of being carbon neutral by 2045.

Windsor and Santa Rosa’s natural gas bans apply to most new housing up to three stories; Healdsburg has a less strict all-electric rule that includes exemptions for cooking appliances and fireplaces.

Shortly after the councils in Santa Rosa and Windsor approved the natural gas bans, however, developers filed three lawsuits challenging the prohibitions. Gallaher sued both Windsor and Santa Rosa, and Windsor also faces a similar but separate lawsuit from the Windsor-Jensen Land Co.

In challenging the all-electric rules, the plaintiffs have argued the mandate will increase home costs, fails to account for the continued potential of PG&E’s widespread blackouts and violates state environmental law.

Gallaher, who developed the Oliver’s Market shopping complex in Windsor, has a history of making sizable political donations in Windsor races, including contributions to Foppoli and council members Debora Fudge and Bruce Okrepkie.

In his first run for town office in 2014, Foppoli received $13,750 combined from Gallaher, his family and his business associates. Gallaher donated $10,000 to Foppoli’s reelection campaign in 2018. And this year, Gallaher and his wife, Cyndi, on Halloween each contributed $10,000 to Foppoli’s mayoral bid, which the campaign reported on Nov. 1, two days before the election, according to campaign finance statements.

The developer’s contributions to Foppoli have for gas-ban supporters raised questions about whether the newly reelected mayor ought to be casting a vote related to litigation brought by one of his biggest political benefactors. Some have already urged the mayor to abstain from voting on the settlement.

“It is obvious that Mr. Foppoli should recuse himself from this item,” said Mike Turgeon, a Santa Rosa climate advocate, in a letter to the Town Council the morning before the Nov. 18 meeting.

Foppoli has no plans to recuse, and he’s not legally required to. He said Monday in an interview that neither Gallaher’s funds nor any other campaign contribution has ever swayed his vote.

“Bill’s been very, very supportive financially in a very similar way for the last three campaigns,” Foppoli said. “He’s never asked me or put pressure on me to vote one way or the other. … I’m happy to reassure your readers that it doesn’t come up, nor has it ever come up.”

Foppoli noted that he voted in support of the natural gas ban last year but declined to comment on its pending demise, saying it was "probably not legally appropriate.“ Criticism of the campaign contributions he’s received from Gallaher and calls to recuse himself from decisions about the gas ban, he said were the work of people who didn’t support his campaign.

“They do this to cause a ruckus and be negative, which is very unfortunate,” Foppoli said.

Foppoli touted that his campaign donations would top $100,000 this cycle and set a record for Windsor, with contributions coming from dozens of supporters besides Gallaher. He added that he anticipated donating half his remaining funds raised to charity.

Sanchez, the town attorney, said campaign contributions are treated differently under California’s conflict of interest rules than sources of income or gifts, notably in that they do not put as much onus on the recipient to recuse.

A council member could decide to recuse if they felt conflicted or biased, Sanchez said, but “usually you want council members that are able to vote on items.”

While Windsor has been negotiating with its challengers, Santa Rosa is not looking to settle.

“Santa Rosa is fighting the lawsuit and intends to keep our all-electric ordinance intact,” said Councilman Chris Rogers on Friday in a text message.

Santa Rosa City Attorney Sue Gallagher acknowledged Windsor’s potential settlement and said the lawsuit Gallaher filed against Santa Rosa “is continuing, with briefing currently underway.”

Foppoli suggested that Santa Rosa, which is larger and has more taxpayer money than Windsor, would be better positioned to setting a legal precedent.

“It would cost us a tremendous amount of taxpayer money to defend a CEQA lawsuit,” he said.

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

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