Keeping Elected Officials and Staff Informed: Energy in CA

Written by Simone Codery-Cotter, 2018-2019 CivicSpark Fellow

The shifting landscape of energy policy and practice is a difficult one to track in the state of California. Local governments are hard pressed to absorb the flow of regulatory information coming out of Sacramento coupled with best practices coming in from all over the world, all while maintaining communication to their constituents.

These challenges were beautifully illustrated on a Wednesday in April. In a multi-purpose room tucked inside a grocery co-op, a group of community members tasked with implementing the Energy Action plan for the City of Grass Valley were having a discussion around housing.

The lively discussion primarily centered around two proposed housing developments in the City of Grass Valley, namely a 425 acre project titled Loma Rica. The Loma Rica project is a proposed 235 unit housing and mixed-use development project on a property that was initially identified for housing back in the 1990’s. After several changes in ownership, reduced density, and environmental impact reports, the development was approved for recommendation to the Grass Valley City Council by the planning commission in a 4-1 vote. Our working group members were questioning if the development of 200+ houses that were not zero net energy would severely impact the City’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals. As one member put it – “Why are we here, trying to implement a plan that the City approved, if our education and outreach efforts are going to be undone by the approval of a single housing development?” It was collectively decided to table the discussion for the next meeting, when our City representative from the planning department could attend, and we moved on.

Before our next meeting, as the liaison from Sierra Business Council (author of the plan) and the facilitator of the community group (implementers of the plan), I thought it prudent to have a preparatory discussion with our City staff member (person in charge of the plan, and tasked with keeping us on track, as well as reporting back to City Council). The only information I had was what the community members had brought up, and I wanted the City’s perspective.

Our conversation helped correct some of the misinformation from the April discussion – for example, some were under the impression that the homes would not be subject to the state of California’s new Title 24 building regulations, which was not the case. At our next meeting in May, we countered that impression and more, going point by point while allowing our City staff member to respond. Overall it was an excellent meeting, and everyone walked away feeling heard.

The takeaway from this story is that we need everyone in the room, working from the same set of facts. The conversation degrades when half-informed, fear-mongering NIMBYs take the stage, and under the guise of love for their community, rail against the short-term inconveniences of change at the expense of long-term benefits. For equitable and impactful energy practices to advance where they matter most at a local government level, we need environmental advocates, private businesses, government officials, and subject matter experts. We need informed discussions based on the available data, and most of all, a goal to meet in the middle.