ENCINITAS — The Encinitas City Council met two environmentally conscious proposals with contrasting reactions Wednesday night.
The council unanimously voted to direct the city Environmental Commission to proceed with a draft ban of polystyrene food service ware, but split on fast-tracking a proposed ban on single-use plastic bags.
Teresa Barth, Tony Kranz and Lisa Shaffer pushed through the plan to have the proposed ban exempted from state environmental quality laws, which would save the city from having to conduct a costly and lengthy environmental review.
The divided approval came after a debate over a study performed by Rincon Consultants, which said that, among other things, increases in manufacturing and laundry loads associated with increased use of reusable bags would increase greenhouse gases compared to current conditions.
The council trio said the consultant study used assumptions that were too conservative, and felt confident that the city could pursue a categorical exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act because the ordinance’s purpose was to protect the environment. The state Court of Appeals has upheld similar categorical exemptions in San Francisco and Marin County.
Matthew Maddox, a senior program manager with Rincon, said a number of cities statewide are pursuing categorical exemptions in an effort to pass local legislation before Sept. 1, the date under a proposed state bag ban that cities would no longer be allowed to adopt its own measures.
State legislators are expected to consider the proposed ban in August, though its passage is uncertain, city council members said.
Maddox told the council that city attorneys and county counsels would not recommend fast-tracking the ordinance because of the threat of a legal challenge from bag-ban opponents. But more cities are accepting the risk because the state ban could be used as a fallback in the event of such a challenge.
The council majority concurred with Maddox’s assessment.
“We have little to lose by trying the categorical exemption route now,” Shaffer said.
Kristin Gaspar and Mark Muir opposed the approach, which they said would go against a long-standing city practice of using quantitative data from staff to determine the path the council should take on projects.
In this case, the consultant study said the amount of greenhouse gases would trigger the need for the city to conduct a full-blown environmental impact report.
“I don’t want to cherry pick issues where we are not going to follow our own rules,” Gaspar said. “There really is a danger in doing that.”
The council majority and members of the public, however, argued that the study’s conservative assumptions provided a distorted view of the true environmental impacts and did not provide less conservative assumptions to balance the study.
“It would be like studying greenhouse gases created by vehicles and assuming that everyone in the world drove a Hummer,” said Jim Wang, who serves on the city’s environmental commission. “We need to balance the “all-Hummer” world with the “all-Prius” world.”
One of the assumptions Wang questioned was the assumption that shoppers would replace every plastic grocery bag with some type of other bag. He said an informal observational survey of shoppers in Solana Beach, where a bag ban is in place, showed that most shoppers opted to use no bag at all.
“The most popular option was the no-bag option, and it isn’t even discussed in the report,” Wang said.
Other speakers, including representatives from the Surfrider Foundation, urged council to move forward with a ban, also questioning the report’s assumptions.
The report “exaggerates the impact of the ordinance on the environment, and potentially ties your hand,” said Roger Kube, chair of the foundation’s San Diego chapter. “The science is good, the conservative assumptions are not.”
The divided council then united in its vote for the draft polystyrene ban and for the environmental council to engage the community — especially restaurateurs that would be impacted by the ban — in a citywide discussion on the proposal before it reaches the council.
Encinitas would become the first city in San Diego to enact such a ban.