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Petaluma council decisions irk climate board

Climate Action Commissioners Thursday expressed their disappointment over City Council’s recent approval of the controversial Sid Commons apartment development, renewing questions over how the nascent and relatively toothless body will impact city decisions.

The 180-unit riverside project drew significant criticism from the public and two council members over environmental concerns earlier this month, including climate change-induced flooding and sea level rise.

“The last few weeks have been difficult, to say the least, for a climate activist to be sitting on the council,” said council woman and Climate Action Commission Liaison D’Lynda Fischer.

Both Vice Mayor Fischer and Mayor Teresa Barrett voted against the Sid Commons development, unconvinced the environmental studies of the project adequately addressed potential impacts on the parcel’s wetland and riparian corridor. They also questioned whether the reports relied on the best available data, especially in regards to anticipated sea level rise and increased flooding.

Last year, the city made significant strides to push climate change issues to the top of their agenda, declaring a climate emergency and creating the advisory Climate Action Commission. As a result, conversations over climate change adaptation and mitigation are only growing louder, permeating discussions within City Hall as the city moves to incorporate these new priorities.

Sid Commons is not the only development that has attracted criticism from sustainability advocates this year. Public outcry over the recent Corona Station development linked to Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit raised doubts over whether its single-family, single-use design kneecaps efforts to encourage public transit use as a way of lowering carbon emissions.

Criticisms of the Corona Station development also centered significantly on affordability concerns, a key sticking point that led the council to delay the project’s final vote to Feb. 24.

These two developments attracted large and passionate crowds to City Hall chambers, underscoring climate change-related concerns among members of the public. They have also caught the attention of the Climate Action Commission as the budding advisory body works to create its own goals and priorities.

“What I was hearing from the public comments about open space and these developments was a real plea for accountability to every governmental structure and ability within this city to really give voice to something that sounds like many people in this community are greatly opposed to,” Commissioner Kailea Frederick said.

Commissioner Kendall Webster submitted a letter to city council Jan. 31 opposing the Sid Commons development, pointing to sea level rise and flooding as a primary concern for the riverside parcel. Webster has also pushed for further education regarding sea level rise forecasts for Petaluma, offering to provide a presentation on the issue at the next meeting to jumpstart education efforts.

Frederick suggested the commission invite developers to give presentations to the Climate Action Commission as a way of encouraging conversation and providing another avenue of transparency.

However, the newly-created commission has the sole mandate of advising council on policy decisions. Staff quickly torpedoed any suggestion that the body review developments for sustainability or environmental elements, which staff said violates their advisory status.

“I think given their mandate right now to create a climate emergency plan, they really have their hands full,” Fischer said. “They are very different from something like the Planning Commission.”

That leaves the commission to explore other avenues of informing and impacting city decisions, especially concerning development projects that rally significant opposition on environmental and sustainability grounds.

Fischer said the group’s priority should be in creating their Climate Emergency Action and Engagement Plan, which she hopes will play a significant role in the city’s upcoming General Plan update.

“I think there’s a lot of leverage in what we have to do here,” said commissioner Ned Orrett, “But we have an emergency and we have got to get going.”

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at kathryn.palmer@arguscourier.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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