City Council OKs climate action plan

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comOctober 2, 2012 

— The Merced City Council on Monday unanimously approved a climate action plan, which officials said provides a "road map" for reducing greenhouse gases in the city. Council members Mary-Michal Rawling, Bill Blake and Noah Lor cast reluctant "yes" votes.

In recent months, the plan has been a cause of tension among council members after newly elected members voted to reject a previous version of the document, which was drafted by the city over several years using input from the community.

"The first product was outstanding," said Councilman Bill Blake. "The (citizen) group went out and came up with the 10 commandments. We've come up with the 10 suggestions. We've taken the teeth out of it. We could have done better."

Under the revised plan, almost all language requiring action on behalf of the city was eliminated. At the same time, a goal to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 20 percent less than the state mandate was removed.

"Once you start making people do things in a city, they don't stay in the city. They go somewhere else," said Mayor Stan Thurston. "There's a balance between getting something done and trampling on people's property rights."

The adopted plan recognizes the state mandate for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and includes 154 recommended actions -- such as synchronizing traffic signals and planting trees downtown.

During public comment, several people called on the council to reinstate the original climate action plan's stronger language.

"It's surprising to me how watered down the revision is," said Tom Grave, a Merced resident. "I'm puzzled these revisions didn't get reviewed with the community."

"The more the language is mild, the more it can be ignored," said Rod Webster, also of Merced. "In order for anything to come from this plan, this has to be a communitywide effort. I hope there will be really strong leadership from the council for those changes to happen."

No one spoke in favor of the revisions, although the validity of climate change was challenged by one individual.

As it stands, the plan provides general strategies for local officials and the public to improve the city's environmental health, said Bill King, principal planner for the city of Merced.

"As written, and as directed by the council, it's drafted to encourage activities and actions, and educate people on actions that can reduce emissions," he said. "It's not intended to come up with a code or mandate."

Beyond addressing environmental concerns, the climate action plan can benefit the city in practical ways, King said.

The plan makes the city more competitive when applying for government funding for environmental projects. Grant projects could include installing bike lanes, providing rebates on solar panel installation or purchasing fuel-efficient city vehicles.

Also, the state-mandated process requiring all discretionary development projects to be assessed for greenhouse-gas emissions can be streamlined if the city puts climate-change planning documents in place, which include the recently approved climate action plan.

The plan is available for review on the city's website at http://is.gd/XujLli.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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