by Kevin Harris
The Thousand Oaks City Council received an update on its controversial and ambitious environmental action plan during Tuesday night’s city council meeting, revealing possible dissent within the otherwise eco-centric group.
Item 10A, a Department Report, was an update to the city’s Climate and Environmental Plan (CEAP) Draft Strategies, presented by Sustainability Division Manager Helen Cox. Dr. Cox, who has a PHD in Environmental Science, gave a detailed and informative presentation by video, though the audio was poor quality and somewhat garbled. Getting specific quotes was sometimes difficult.
The CEAP was an idea first generated in 2014 through the “visioning process” and was supported by the community at the time, while continuing to be pushed through subsequent city councils thereafter.
At the core of the CEAP is the idea that climate change is continuing to intensify, and more important, is at least in part, caused by human activities. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, both of these conditions are indisputable, and the Thousand Oaks government apparently agrees.
“Although the city is not mandated to develop its own climate action plan, state law requires the city to integrate climate adaptation to its general plan,” Dr. Cox said. She also told the council that the city must analyze all proposed city projects for compliance with the general plan’s environmental adaptations.
Dr. Cox said that even without an adopted action plan, Thousand Oaks won a Vanguard Award for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent between 2010 and 2020. She later explained the reduction in emissions by pointing to “energy conservation, a transition to more renewable energy, and improved vehicle fuel efficiency.” She also warned, however, that the impacts of climate change are still here, locally, with impacts not only on the environment, but also on the economy. It should also be noted that the State of California requires an 80% reduction of 2010 level greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Based on figures from 2020, Transportation accounted for the majority of local greenhouse gases, accounting for 62 percent, followed by natural gas, producing 20 percent. All other sources produced under ten percent each, including refrigerants and solid waste.
In January, 2021, the Thousand Oaks City Council directed staff to develop strategies to reduce emissions by at least 40 percent by 2030, and by 80% by 2050 (of 2010 levels), to meet or exceed state requirements. One method to help achieve these numbers that appears to be favored by the city council would be to adopt local construction “REACH” Codes, which would require new buildings to have all electric appliances (no gas hookups), solar arrays, and other emissions reduction schemes. REACH Codes have even tougher environmental standards than current state codes.
According to Dr. Cox, 50 California cities have already adopted Electric REACH Codes, while 450 cities have not.
Other strategies to reduce local emissions include changes to the transportation sector. These would include reducing miles driven by increasing mixed use developments and adding higher density housing areas; shifting from single occupancy vehicles to more public transit; and to increasing cleaner vehicle adoption such as electric vehicles, by adding EV chargers to new construction and installing more public chargers.
Another set of strategies looks at local environmental concerns directly. Some of these include providing incentives for carbon-enhancement gardens; planting more trees; banning idling vehicles; and banning gas-powered lawn equipment.
While city staff has held a couple of outreach meetings to try to determine the level and direction of public support for the plan, so far participation has been minimal, with about 100 community members or less showing up. This makes the survey results moot, though according to Dr. Cox, the outreach efforts are just beginning. Continued outreach and feedback will continue through the public Storymap website over the next few months.
Tentatively, in the Fall of 2022, after an environmental review, city staff will draft their Climate and Environmental Plan, then work to adopt the plan into the city’s General Plan.
“We understand that there are anxieties surrounding climate change and the need to take action. But the city is not waiting for adoption of CEAP before taking any action,” Dr. Cox announced. She referenced the 359 kw solar installation being built at the Municipal Center; the 12 new EV chargers installed in 2019, plus applications for another 11 last month; and two electric buses, with their chargers going online next year.
Also enacted early is a ban on the sale and distribution of polystyrene; infrastructure and striping for bicycles and pedestrians; and a solid waste contract that collects organics and food waste products from all households and businesses, among others.
Following Dr. Cox’ presentation, city council members had an opportunity to raise their questions about the plan. Before the Q&A, however, Mayor Claudia Bill-de la Pena commented on the event.
Mayor: “The city of Thousand Oaks was the first city in Ventura County, in 2005, to join the KYOTO Climate Agreement… I’m glad that we’re finally ready to acknowledge, at least most of us, climate change, and that we actually have to do something about that.”
Council Member Kevin McNamee then asked Dr. Cox how our already unreliable local power grid will be able to handle all the new households transitioning from natural gas to electric heating and other uses. Her answer was that the transition will not happen overnight, and that the utility commission and other agencies are working on making the grid better, while increasing its reliance on renewable sources. McNamee was also concerned about the rising costs of electricity as the grid moves to less reliable renewable sources, all while demand increases due to environmental mandates.
When he began asking Dr. Cox a prolonged, perhaps run-on question pointing out the folly of moving from natural gas to electric in all new buildings, while China and India produce vast amounts of CO2 and greenhouse gases, Mayor de la Pena interrupted him and tried to end his question early, saying the period was for questions only.
“Madam Mayor, I am coming to a question. If you would allow me the liberty that you are afforded, I’d like to do the same,” McNamee told the Mayor. McNamee went on to ask Dr. Cox why it is so important to mandate ending gas hookups in new buildings while it is the transportation sector that creates the most greenhouse gas in the city.
Dr. Cox agreed that transportation is a much bigger local greenhouse contributor than natural gas, and she added that any new mandates ending gas hookups in new construction will have to go through an extensive cost analysis before it can be implemented. With that, Council Member McNamee thanked her for her thorough presentation, and reminded the Mayor that the Brown Act required council members to limit all discussions and questions to public meetings, which is why it is so important that he not be interrupted during his question period.
Mayor de la Pena responded with some snark by saying she forgot that council members are supposed to be limited to 3 questions, and she will go back to enforcing that.
Council Member Al Adam asked Dr. Cox if she believes the recently passed mixed use land project along the 101 freeway corridor in Thousand Oaks will produce a significant reduction in greenhouse gases. Cox said she does expect reductions based on reduced driving based on general plan projections.
Council member Ed Jones then chimed in with what he said was his idea to reduce pollution in Thousand Oaks. “Give every gardner in Thousand Oaks a broom instead of a leaf blower.” The Mayor responded light heartedly by saying, “Well, maybe an electric leaf blower.”
Council Member McNamee then asked another question. “The collective wisdom of the people of Thousand Oaks, in my opinion, far exceeds anything that this council can present to make a decision. Why would it not be better to let the open market make that decision if the homeowner wishes to make that new construction all electric… why not leave it up to the wisdom of the people of Thousand Oaks to make that choice, instead of five council members requiring it?”
Dr. Cox responded by suggesting that it is less costly to determine up front, during construction, whether a building will use all electricity or have gas hookups, as opposed to changing things around afterward. She added, however, that the city council has the option of mandating things based on her presentation, or not, and that her role is not to make policy but to educate the council.
Immediately following the council members’ Q&A, members of the public had their chance to opine on the matter. About a dozen residents called in, either by video or audio, with a majority of them speaking in favor of the environmental action plan. Following is a partial representation of those who called in.
Barbara Layton: Long time Newbury Park resident. Supports CEAP and welcomes the idea that the city council will actively engage in working to improve the environment in any way possible.
Jennifer Burke: Newbury Park resident, representing the Clean Power Alliances Advisory Committee. Said she “applauds the city’s success in its work to address climate change to date.” She called natural gas “one of the most significant contributors to climate pollution, both in our city and around the world.”
Clint Fultz: Thousand Oaks resident, resident of Conejo Climate Coalition. Said that more than 99.99 percent of peer reviewed scientific papers agree that climate change is mainly caused by humans, according to a new, major study. Mr. Fultz applauds the council and the city’s sustainability division for its work in reducing greenhouse gases, and supports CEAP.
Dan Beason: Thousand Oaks resident. “I think it’s kind of ridiculous to think that Thousand Oaks is going to save the world.” Said he is disappointed to see new regulations get piled on, and that while he recognizes many of them are well meaning, they will make life harder and more expensive for Thousand Oaks residents. He compared himself, a regular working person doing 10-hour days, to the other speakers, many who are organized and members of environmental clubs, with prepared speeches. He warned the council that he and others like him will remember their actions at election time.
The city council voted to receive the report, as no other action was required.
The next Thousand Oaks City Council meeting will be on Tuesday, November 9, 2021, at 6:00 PM. The URL to watch the meetings back and to download a meeting agenda is https://toaks.primegov.com/public/portal.
Kevin Harris is a reporter, editor and journalist, previous President of Cal State Northridge’s Society of Professional Journalists, and having worked for the LA Times and Newhall Signal. He is now also an author and videographer, and lives with his two children in Thousand Oaks.