In the wake of its decision to permanently ban construction of any new gas stations, thought to be the first prohibition of its kind in the nation, Petaluma is drawing a wave of national media attention as a potential model for other municipalities.
The move, which city leaders say has been in the works since a temporary freeze on new gas stations in 2019, is meant to encourage a switch to electric and hydrogen charging stations as the Sonoma County’s second-largest city aims to become carbon neutral by 2030.
Since the ordinance was introduced Feb. 22, Petaluma Mayor Teresa Barret said she has juggled back-to-back media requests and managed an email inbox brimming with inquiries from people across globe. Barrett, who has lived in the city since 1979 and has served on its council for more than 14 years, said she’s never seen a local policy decision garner such a spotlight.
“It’s really taken me, and most of us (council members), by surprise,” Barrett said Thursday. “I just thought, wow, I had no idea it would go international. By the time I disconnected from one Zoom interview yesterday I had an email from someone in Ireland. Then one of my neighbors told me their in-laws in England saw a story about us — our little town of Petaluma.”
The city of roughly 60,000 people is home to 16 operational gas stations, and city staff concluded there are multiple stations located within a 5-minute drive of every planned or existing home within city limits. Those existing fueling centers will continue to operate normally.
The ban will also have no influence on the Safeway gas station project, which was approved in 2019. Proposed at the corner of McDowell Boulevard and Maria Drive, the planned discount fueling center is ensnared in litigation with resident-led group Save Petaluma, which objects to the station’s proximity to McDowell Elementary School and surrounding residential neighborhoods.
Santa Rosa and Sebastopol have long mulled similar action, and leaders from each city reiterated that desire during a call with other Sonoma County mayors Thursday, Barrett said. Petaluma is the first city to act locally, and it may be the first in the nation to enact an outright ban on new fueling station construction.
Matt Krogh, a campaign director with the advocacy group Stand.Earth, said in an email this week he feels “reasonably confident” Petaluma is the first city to enact such a ban.
But leaders in Petaluma, a city that has banned new drive-thrus of any kind since 2008, say being the first was never the motivation.
“We didn’t know we would be the first, and I keep saying that we didn’t do this to be the first,” Barrett said. “We’re taking one step at a time here, because that’s how change is made. To me, it’s really important we’re not just ticking off boxes. If we want to be carbon neutral by 2030, we have to make these changes.”
Woody Hastings, co-coordinator of Sonoma County-based Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations, views Petaluma’s move as a potential tipping point for other cities contemplating gas station bans or restrictions.
According to the most recent analysis by the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority, 60% of greenhouse gas emissions in Sonoma County originate in the transportation sector.
“We now have Petaluma providing an example for other cities to look at and adopt their own (bans),” said Hastings, whose group is currently battling four gas station projects in the county. “I think it helps to make the case that, to take the climate crisis seriously, you’ve got to put meaning and substance to these climate emergency resolutions.”
Although Barrett said most of the feedback has been positive, the city’s prohibition, which will go into effect in early April, has drawn concern from some corners. In a statement this week, the California Fuels & Convenience Alliance called efforts like the one in Petaluma part of “an alarming trend.”
“Various localities throughout the state have started down a misguided direction, banning new gas stations within city and county limits, through ordinance or moratorium,” according to a statement from the group, which represents gas stations and other companies that sell or transport petroleum. “This single-minded approach will ultimately cause greater harm for communities than any potential benefit.”
Even as news of the Petaluma City Council’s decision to ban gas station construction in perpetuity raised eyebrows elsewhere, it has come as little surprise to local climate activists or engaged residents.
Petaluma imposed a temporary moratorium on construction of new gas stations in 2019. And in January, the city’s seven council members enthusiastically endorsed a list of action items, including a ban on gas station construction, meant to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.
Barrett has also characterized the ban as largely noncontroversial among Petalumans, saying she’s only received “hate mail” from people living elsewhere in the state and country.
“This is not a hard-fought, contentious decision,” she said. “These are, by and large, unanimous decisions that are bringing us forward. We are just responding to our community.”
(Contact Kathryn Palmer at email@example.com, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)