12/6/2011 Council Summary – Sunnyvale Adopts Plastic Bag Ban

Wow, what a night.

We started the evening with not one but two closed sessions.  The first regarded anticipated litigation from Save the Plastic Bag, the second was our annual performance review for the City Attorney.  Not much more I can say than that.

We then went to our meeting, and there were no special orders, no presentations, and no announcements.  The consent calendar passed on a 6-0 vote with no pulls.  And there were no public comments.  We really breezed through the initial stuff pretty quickly.

Item 2 involved a review of city ordinances involving vision triangles.  Basically, the city places specific requirements on the triangles at street corners, to make sure that cars, cyclists, and pedestrians can see oncoming traffic and vice versa.  The review looked at whether or not those requirements were sufficient.  There was a lot of discussion about the specifics – things like whether to require parking to stay clear of intersections with traffic signals, intersections with controls of some sort (yield or stop signs, whatever), or something else.  In the end, we passed staff’s recommendation on a 6-0 vote with a couple of changes.  Staff wanted to restrict parking within 20′ of signalized intersections, but we broadened it to 20′ of controlled intersections (lights, signs, whatever).  And the proposal describes not just a vision triangle for intersections, but also for driveways.  We included alleys along with driveways.

I had concerns about widening the restricted parking from signalized intersections to all controlled intersections.  Staff said there are about 30 signalized intersections, most of which already control parking nearby.  And there are 400 controlled intersections, most of which don’t control parking.  So creating controls on those intersections require signs or red curbs or something similar, at a cost of about $85k, which staff said we don’t have and can’t afford.  The council motion basically means that we will install parking controls as funding becomes available, but parking doesn’t get restricted at an intersection until the markings are installed (we can’t ticket people for parking in a “no parking” area that isn’t marked as “no parking”).  I’m just not thrilled by that level of vagueness and lack of clarity.  But it was clear that the motion was going to pass, and I liked pretty much everything else in it, so I went along with the motion.

That brought us to the elephant in the room – consideration of a single use bag policy (usually known as a plastic bag ban).  And Council clearly came armed for bear, because there weren’t a lot of questions asked in advance.  This is one of the more serious issues we’ve dealt with, with one of the most direct impacts on the average resident, and it was clear that my colleagues and I came to the meeting thoroughly prepared for this issue, in all of its complexity.  So we went pretty quickly to public comments, and the public comments were unanimously in favor of banning plastic bags.  There were some really good points made by the speakers, as well.  Most surprising to me was that not a single nay-sayer came to speak – I expected to see at least one, but nope.  So then we debated what to do, and there was a lot of discussion about the specifics.  The initial proposal was staff recommendation with an expansion of the scope to include all retailers 9 months after the initial ban takes place, which I seconded.  I then got a couple of friendly amendments accepted.  One increases the per-bag fee from $0.10 to $0.25 in January 2014 (to match what San Jose is proposing).  The other involved business exemptions.  The motion as proposed exempted restaurants from the ban, and I added to that a term I saw in the San Jose ordinance – exempting “non-profit charitable reusers” (think Goodwill).  So the proposed single-use bag policy included

  • major retailers banned from distributing plastic bags commencing June 20, 2012 (with some exceptions – smaller bags for protecting medicine, meats, and other such things from other items in a bag are allowed, and larger bags for protecting dry-cleaning are allowed).
  • ban is expanded to all retailers except restaurants and the charity organizations on March 20, 2013
  • retailers may offer 40% post-consumer paper bags for a mandatory $0.10 fee (going to the retailer)
  • fee increases to $0.25 on January 1, 2014, provided San Jose does the same
  • participants in the Special Supplement Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children and Supplemental Food Program are exempted from the per-bag fee.

This provoked some discussion, and some disagreement about increasing the fee to $0.25.  A formal amendment was made to remove that friendly amendment, but it failed on a 3-3 vote.  Then we voted on the main motion, and it passed on a 5-1 vote.

This is great news, one that I was pushing for pretty hard.  It clearly meant a lot to a number of residents who showed up and demonstrated real emotional investment in the issue.  Plastic bags are incredibly bad out in the environment – they gum up the SMaRT Station, they get into the waterways, they block up storm water runoff (and require us to clean out stuff), and they’re well known to have negative impacts on wildlife.  They’re what we refer to as a “bad actor”.  I had a couple of considerations going into this.  First, I think that businesses will need the full $0.25 to cover their costs going forward (which is also good for the overall policy,  since the environmental impact report made it clear that the higher fee will be more effective in discouraging single-use bag usage).  Second, I thought that we needed to apply the ban to all retailers and not just the larger ones (and I was grateful that there was almost unanimous support to do this).  Third, I thought it was really important to match the San Jose ordinance as closely as possible.  There are a number of benefits in doing this.  Having the two largest cities in the county in lock-step on this issue is a powerful statement to make to all of the other cities in the county.  And creating an atmosphere where cities aren’t jockeying over the specifics of their individual bans so as to gain a competitive commercial advantage over each other is very important too.  I had some other considerations, but they all add up to a very positive impact on our environment and city services.

I was also very concerned about a couple of the exemptions that we made, which thankfully got passed.  I don’t want to create a situation with this policy where we are forcing some low-income people to decide between buying food or clothing and paying for paper bags.  That should never be a choice that the city imposes on someone.  So hopefully the protections we put in place will make sure that doesn’t happen.

I’ll add that I came away from this feeling pretty terrific about our staff in Environmental Services.  Director Stufflebean and Mark Bowers did a great job on this issue, and we got a lot of support from Rincon, the contractor which did the environmental impact report.  Director Stufflebean really got thrown into the fire on this issue, but it helped us a lot having someone from San Jose who had some familiarity with what they did to get their policy put in place.

Item 4 was a bit wonkish – we looked at modifications to our housing sub-element to deal with some state requirements.  Most of this was insider baseball, but there are some potential impacts to neighborhoods from uses that tend to be problematic (emergency housing, special needs housing, and so on), and they’re uses that tend to make residents nervous.  Staff proposed applying them to the MS-POA (industrial, places of assembly) zoning.  After a lot of discussion, we ended up approving staff’s recommendation on a 5-1 vote.  I thought MS-POA was a really smart choice.  It’s a transitional zoning, usually between residential and industrial zones, which means it’s near residential amenities without being in an actual residential zone.

Item 5 was my issue – consideration of three changes to council policy regarding boards and commissions.  The first was a proposal to increase the frequency of Sustainability Commission meetings from every other month to monthly.  The second was a request to move the Board of Library Trustee meetings from Library Program Room A to one of the upstairs library conference rooms.  The third was to finalize language governing a council liaison policy for boards and commissions.  I gave the staff report as the subcommittee chair.  We recommended monthly Sustainability Commission meetings.  We didn’t recommend the BoLT location move, but we instead recommended rewriting council policy to remove all of the specific location requirements for the commission meetings.  Instead, we suggested creating language that leaves locations to staff but expresses the priorities for choices to be 1) preferably in Council Chambers or the West Conference Room, and 2) in a location that lends itself to consistent use by the commission (so commissions are meeting in different locations every month).  There was one brief question, no public input, and the Council voted 6-0 to approve the subcommittee’s recommendations.  I was surprised that there were no changes, but I’m not complaining.  Based on comments made, I think the subcommittee did really good work on these issues.

That’s about it, other than non-agenda comments.  One colleague proposed several study issues but got no takers.  Another complimented various people and groups for the Lakewood Village parade last weekend (great event) and the Murphy Avenue tree lighting (ditto).  And we called it a night at exactly three hours.

Great meeting, with some significant issues discussed and handled.  Great public input, and really great involvement and input from my colleagues (even in dissent).  It was a good night for Sunnyvale.

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