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.