Los Altos council votes to mandate all-electric ordinance for new buildings

The Los Altos City Council voted to adopt a reach code ordinance during Tuesday night’s meeting (Sept. 22), requiring newly constructed buildings to be all-electric. However, cooking appliances and fireplaces are exempt from the rule for new single-family homes.

gas cooking
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier Photo Illustration
Although the Los Altos City Council has adopted a reach code ordinance requiring electric power in new construction, cooking appliances, above, and fireplaces are exempt and may be powered by gas.

The ordinance applies to all new residential, commercial, multifamily, accessory-dwelling units and mixed-use buildings, and mandates that no natural gas or propane plumbing be installed within the building – with certain exceptions. The policy applies only to new construction; existing units are not affected.

Reach codes “reach” beyond the state’s building standards code. Adopting reach codes aligns Los Altos with similar policies already in place in neighboring cities. In a staff report presented at the meeting by the Environmental Commission, top reasons cited in support of the reach codes included reducing greenhouse gas emissions, making progress on the city’s Climate Action Plan and improving indoor air quality. Top reasons in opposition were the elimination of residential and consumer choice, government overreach and a limited emission reduction impact. The commission unanimously recommended adopting the reach codes.

Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins, even in staunchly supporting the ordinance, acknowledged that some residents would not be happy.

“We do have a resident community that really doesn’t like a lot of change,” she said. “I agree this is when leadership comes into play in terms of looking at the greater whole.”

Council members Anita Enander and Lynette Lee Eng voted against regulating new single-family units, despite Mayor Jan Pepper’s desire for unanimous support on all motions. Motions requiring new multi-family buildings of 10 or more units and commercial buildings to be all-electric passed unanimously.

In an interview with the Town Crier after the meeting, Pepper said she was satisfied with what the council accomplished because the biggest environmental impact comes from space and water heating, which were included in all of the different motions. She also said that it was important to be in sync with other communities.

“Some of the arguments we got were that, ‘Oh, the houses would be less valuable,’” Pepper said. “If every other community is doing the same thing, it actually might put Los Altos in a negative light to not be staying up to where things are going.”

Enander voiced concern about the financial implications of reach codes, citing state guidance that individual localities shouldn’t impose a higher building standard unless it is cost-effective. A California Energy Comission study presented to the councl indicated that a building that is all-electric at the minimum efficiency required in the energy code is cost-effective. Lee Eng was worried about potential noise from heat pumps.

Attempt to compromise

At one point, in an effort to convince Enander and Lee Eng to join the majority, Pepper asked if they would be willing to compromise on a watered-down version of the reach codes: Gas would still be allowed new buildings but wiring would have to be implemented for a future shift to electrification. But both Bruins and Vice Mayor Neysa Fligor thought that would weaken the ordinance too much.

“I’d be very disappointed if that’s where we end up,” Fligor said. “It’s better than nothing, but it’s a weak position, and I don’t think that’s what we need to do as leaders on this. We’re compromising too much to get a unanimous vote.”

Bruins added that the compromise would almost make it seem like the council members were “climate deniers.”

“I’m sorry – I do not accept that label,” Enander responded. “This is about the intelligence of our community, and their ability to make decisions for themselves.”

But the council did compromise on a key item in allowing an exception for cooking appliances in single-family homes, detached accessory dwelling units and duplexes up to four units – despite the Environmental Commission’s recommendation that the ordinance pass without that condition. Bruins noted that many residents had expressed concerns over a ban on cooktops.

Multi-family, residential buildings of nine or fewer units would follow the same standard as single-family homes. Commercial buildings would be granted an exception if there is a public or business-related need that can’t be met with an electric appliance, such as the use of pizza ovens, commercial kitchen and laboratories.

Mixed opinions

Pepper began the discussion by reading a prepared seven-minute statement regarding a potential conflict of interest with her role as CEO of Peninsula Clean Energy. The Fair Political Practices Commission ruled in June that she did not have a conflict of interest after receiving complaints from residents. Peninsula Clean Energy serves San Mateo County, and Pepper would not stand to benefit financially from the adoption of reach codes, the commission ruled.

More than 30 members of the public spoke during the council meeting, with a majority in favor of enacting reach codes. Some were nonresidents, including officials from Cupertino, Morgan Hill and East Palo Alto. One resident who spoke against the reach codes, David Su, made remarks that resonated with both Lee Eng and Enander.

“The residents of Los Altos are a pretty smart bunch,” said Su, a 30-year resident. “The best thing we can do for our highly educated residents is empower us with research and let us choose what we should decide for our own gas/electricity codes.”

The city has surveyed more than 500 residents this year. In the most recent survey, conducted May 8-31, three-quarters of respondents supported all-electric new construction. The council also has received approximately 500 letters and emails on the subject since February.

Pepper believed that some in the community didn’t understand that the reach codes would only apply to new construction.

“For 99.9% of people in this community, this isn’t even going to affect them,” Pepper said. “But new buildings are going to be around for a long time. It’s important that if we’re building something new that’s going to be here for the next 50 years, let’s think ahead and try to do it right.”

Bruins warned that if Los Altos were not going to take action, the state would eventually enact mandates requiring cities to be more eco-friendly.

“We might as well just say we love it when we don’t have control of things,” she said. “Whether you like it or not, these things are going to be happening. We can either be a leader or we can wait to be the follower. I’d rather be the leader.”

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