Pictured: Ojai City Councilmember William Weirick at the Oct. 27 city council meeting. Screenshot capture from meeting video. 

by Kimberly Rivers

kimberly@vcreporter.com

On Oct. 27, the Ojai City Council voted 4-1 to move an ordinance to a second public reading on Nov. 10 that would require new construction to be electric only, but would include specific exemptions for several types of building activity, including restaurants and swimming pools, a loophole that climate activists say weakens the move. (Online correction, Nov. 5, 9:30 a.m.). 

The ordinance, called a REACH code, is aligned with movements across the state to “reach” beyond current state requirements for building in anticipation of meeting strong emission reduction goals and to combat climate change. 

Suza Francina, the only city council member to vote no, was pushing for adoption of an ordinance put forward by the city’s Climate Emergency Mobilization Committee (CEMC) that did not include any exemptions, but did allow for an appeal process. The CEMC proposal did include an exemption for new Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) in the footprint of an existing house. 

According to a resolution passed last year by the city council, the CEMC has the goal of  bringing “high priority strategies to achieve emission reductions at emergency speed” to the city council for consideration.  

Michelle Ellison, CEMC chair, speaking during the online Oct. 27 public hearing, said that “blanket exemptions” like the carve outs the council included in the ordinance “dilute the impact of the ordinance.” Instead, she said the committee recommended the appeal process for those applicants who want to make the case that the ordinance is too onerous. The appeal process suggested by the committee would take projects directly to the city council. Committee member Phil White said in his opinion it should be elected officials, rather than staff, that review these types of projects and determine when ordinance provisions are waived.

Councilmembers William Weirick, Randy Haney and Ryan Blatz supported what they called an “incentive” approach to going all electric, and Blatz pointed to conversations he’d had with contractors that all-electric construction can be more expensive over time as a reason for supporting the exemptions in the new ordinance. 

He referred to a current “client” that he spoke with that may be doing some commercial construction on Ojai Avenue, who would go with a “recommendation” for all electric if the city took that route instead of requiring it. Blatz emphasized that he felt all electric over time would be more expensive and create an undue burden for some homeowners, contributing to “the overall creep of cost of living” that is impacting the community. 

Weirick said that while several cities in the state have adopted similar codes, most have exemptions.

Haney went so far as to say that “all-electric appliances are more expensive than gas appliances.” 

In a quick review of residential home appliances through the Home Depot website, there is a wide range of options and prices on gas and electric stoves. Basic level GE brand gas ranges are priced at about  $718 to $1,348 (there are more expensive units) with comparable GE brand electric ranges spanning $592 to $772 for a convection-type unit.  

Gas water heaters range in price from $539 to $1,800, and electric water heaters $379 to $1,999. Electric heat pumps, recommended when going all electric, also serve as air conditioning units, save the need for separate heating and air conditioning systems and range in price from about $858 for small single-room units to $3,800 for a complete residential unit system. 

Committee members pointed out that in the coming decades as communities transition away from fossil fuel-based energy sources, long term costs will go down. 

The discussion did not include ongoing global warming impacts or costs associated with not putting a ban on gas in new construction in place, without exemptions, as recommended by the CEMC. 

Current Ojai Mayor Johnny Johnston reminded the council of the “existential threat to the future” that climate change presents, and commented that what was ultimately adopted “gutted the whole thing.” 

Ellison pointed to 35 other cities in California that have adopted various forms of REACH codes, but Weirick countered that in fact only a few of them, about three, have passed similar ordinances, with the majority including specific exemptions. Ellison clarified that most of the 35 municipalities are taking an all-electric “approach.” Some use an “incentive approach” to encourage all electric construction, but that approach is not considered “as ambitious for emission reduction” as requiring all electric in new construction. Others have passed a gas moratorium, which is not what is being suggested for Ojai. (Online correction, Nov. 5, 9:30 a.m.)

Weirick interrupted her to emphasize that a majority of cities have instead used “certain carve outs…for certain buildings or classifications” to take an incentive approach. 

“Each passing day of inaction means more climate disaster,” said Ellison, emphasizing the opportunity for Ojai to “lead by example” and that the CEMC is recommending an approach as ambitious “as possible.” 

CEMC member Steve Colome PhD said the committee prioritized efforts aimed at “reducing climate [change] producing gases,” including carbon dioxide and methane, and to identify the “things the city had the jurisdiction to tackle,” while keeping in mind that there must be a “path to eliminating our use of fossil fuels.” He pointed to state emission reduction requirements. “We have to get there no later than 2050,” he said, and that “some of these issues will be forced upon the city if we don’t act ourselves.”

“It doesn’t matter if we’re one of three” cities in the state to adopt this type of ordinance, said Brian Holly, another CEMC member. “I think we need to be a front runner…even if it creates a little blowback down the line.” 

An Oct. 15, 2020 study performed by the Rocky Mountain Institute found “that all-electric new construction is more economical to build than a home with gas appliances, regardless of location.” The institute did recommend that policymakers pass policies that incentivize or mandate all-electric residential new construction. (1) 

The proposed ordinance that will go before the Ojai City Council for a second reading on Nov. 10: Attach. A – Ojai Reach Code Ordinance

The Oct. 27, Ojai City Council meeting (ordinance item starts at timestamp 52:32) at: https://ojaicity.org/city-council-meeting-videos/ 

More information on Ojai’s Climate Emergency Mobilization Committee is online at: https://ojaicity.org/climate-emergency-mobilization-committee/ 

  1. All-Electric New Homes: A Win for the Climate and the Economy, Oct. 15, 2020, The Rocky Mountain Institute. https://rmi.org/all-electric-new-homes-a-win-for-the-climate-and-the-economy/