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Lawsuits by developers challenge Windsor’s ban on natural gas in new homes

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Windsor’s fledgling natural gas ban is under legal fire from developers who argue its new mandate will increase costs for future homeowners and fails to account for the continued potential of widespread electricity shut-offs imposed by PG&E.

Two lawsuits filed by Sonoma County developers last week ask a judge to block Windsor’s requirement that most new homes use electric appliances for cooking and heating instead of natural gas technology. The court fights could shape future development in Windsor and ripple out to Santa Rosa, where the City Council enacted a similar ban earlier this month.

The suits claim Windsor’s rule violates state environmental law, glosses over the dangers of increased generator use by residents of gas-free homes and ignores some research showing higher utility bills for those who live in all-electric homes.

The suits cite PG&E’s recent electricity shut-offs and the 2018 Camp fire in Butte County — apparently sparked by the utility’s power equipment — to bolster claims that banning natural gas is unwise.

Windsor’s natural gas ban “was passed at a time when the supply of electrical power to the town and surrounding communities may be less reliable and subject to more and longer planned outages than ever before,” according to a lawsuit filed by Bill Gallaher, a prominent Sonoma County developer whose business footprint includes Windsor. Gallaher’s suit alludes to the Kincade fire, which ignited in northern Sonoma County last month shortly after nearby PG&E transmission equipment malfunctioned.

“In October of 2019 the town and surrounding area were subject to prolonged electricity blackouts and wildfires which may have been caused by electrical infrastructure. But the town failed to analyze how all-electric residential construction would exacerbate these impacts,” the Gallaher suit states.

The 17-page complaint, filed Nov. 19 in Sonoma County Superior Court, seeks to block Windsor from carrying out its all-electric requirement and asks a judge to deem the ban invalid and award unspecified monetary damages and attorneys’ fees.

The Windsor Town Council will consider the merits of the lawsuits in closed session, a discussion that could take place as early as next Wednesday, said Town Attorney Jose Sanchez. He noted that “like with any litigation, there’s always different options” for how to react to the lawsuits.

“The town is confident on the process it took, but at this point, we have to evaluate the complaints in front of us,” Sanchez said.

Windsor and Santa Rosa joined a growing list of cities moving forward with natural gas bans as part of a statewide battle against emissions tied to fossil fuels. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown last year set a goal of ensuring that California’s carbon emissions — including those related to natural gas — either are eliminated or offset by 2045.

“Time is running out” to take action to curb the most drastic impacts of climate change, said Windsor Town Councilman Sam Salmon. He supported the all-electric measure but acknowledged that defending the town’s new policy could run up a bill of hundreds of thousands of dollars, a cost that could be difficult to justify to residents.

“This was a really small step, and it may be that this was such a small step that we’ll have to consider the cost in terms of what we hope to accomplish,” Salmon said. He noted that the predominant source of carbon emissions in Sonoma County is transportation.

“I am disappointed in the two entities that filed against us, because I think it’s what we’re going to find at almost every step of the way,” he said. “We’ll see how this goes. I think there’ll be a lot to talk about.”

Because local all- electric rules are not mandatory in California, local governments are required to show the state Energy Commission that their natural gas bans will be cost effective. Santa Rosa and Windsor have tried to meet the requirement by citing a study commissioned by PG&E, the region’s dominant gas provider, which backed Windsor’s natural gas ban in concept. The utility could save money by limiting the expansion of its natural gas network, according to an August letter sent by Robert Kenney, PG&E’s vice president for regulatory affairs, to Windsor Town Manager Ken MacNab.

But the PG&E study cited by Windsor only looked at a statewide average of electric rates for residential customers, according to a second lawsuit, filed Friday on behalf of a limited liability corporation based in Sonoma. The suit cites a separate cost- effectiveness study published earlier this year that uses a more precise Bay Area rate for electricity customers and finds that utility bills for Bay Area residents with all-electric homes would be higher than elsewhere in the state. The opposing study assumes PG&E’s electric rates would increase faster than the bankrupt utility’s natural gas rates because of wildfire risk and liability, according to the suit.

The company behind the second suit, Windsor -Jensen Land Co. LLC, has proposed building more than 200 new homes on 59 acres east of Windsor that would have to be annexed by the town.

A representative of the development firm, Tom Micheletti, referred a request for comment to Santa Rosa-based political consultant Rob Muelrath, who did not immediately return a phone message. An attorney for the company, Andrew Sabey, declined to comment unless his client instructed him to do so.

A request on Monday to interview Gallaher left on a voicemail with Gallaher Homes and a message relayed to his attorney were not returned.

Prior to Santa Rosa’s adoption of its natural gas ban earlier this month, the city received a letter from Gallaher’s attorney warning of potential litigation should the city pass a measure like Windsor’s. As of Tuesday, the city had not been served with any lawsuit connected to its adoption of an all-electric requirement, according to City Attorney Sue Gallagher.

The city of Berkeley, which banned natural gas in most new low-rise homes earlier this year, faces a legal challenge from the California Restaurant Association, which fears the local regulation is a key step toward taking gas stoves away from professional chefs. The lawsuit, filed in federal court, raises a separate set of legal questions that restaurateurs hope will lead to the ban’s demise.

Santa Rosa, Windsor and dozens of other jurisdictions that have passed or are considering all-electric requirements will have to submit their plans to the California Energy Commission for approval before the bans take effect in early 2020. A spokeswoman for the commission said Tuesday neither Santa Rosa nor Windsor has done so yet.

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

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