No new gas stations, drive-thrus: Sacramento’s plan to build housing and fight climate change

The Sacramento City Council has voted to approve a sweeping framework to build housing near transit and decrease the city’s dependence on cars over the next two decades, all while slashing carbon emissions in response to climate change.

Among many new policies, the city’s newly approved General Plan bans new gas stations and drive-thrus. It also ends parking mandates for new development and grants virtually unlimited density to housing construction projects in single family zones.

“This is a historic document,” said Mayor Darrell Steinberg of the general plan he said will make Sacramento a more walkable, bikeable and affordable city. “This represents the true progressive values of this community — housing for everyone.”

With this plan, approved Tuesday night, Sacramento became the first jurisdiction in the nation to allow the construction of an unlimited number of housing units in a single family neighborhood as long as they meet height and other restrictions.

It also allows property owners to build on larger portions of their existing lots, require virtually all new housing to be built within existing developed areas and encourage new construction to be powered by electricity instead of fossil gas.

These policies are meant to help achieve the city’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan also approved Tuesday, which maps out a path to slash climate-warming emissions from transportation and buildings by 2030 on the road to carbon neutrality by 2045.

Sacramento’s climate plan was designed to meet California’s statewide mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 48% below 1990 levels by 2030, a goal that the state itself may not meet.

The climate plan, which has come under fire by local environmental groups, estimated Sacramento’s annual greenhouse gas pollution at about 3.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually — 94% of which come from transportation and buildings.

At the city’s current rate of burning fossil fuels to power cars and heat buildings, the plan found that some 540,000 tons of carbon dioxide needs to be slashed annually to meet that fast-approaching 2030 target and reach carbon neutrality in 2045.

To get there, the city is relying heavily on the Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s zero carbon plan for nearly half of all emissions reductions. It estimates that electric vehicle adoption will make up 17%, and municipal waste pollution for the rest of the cuts.

The plan sets targets for public transit, aiming for 11% of all city travelers to use it by 2030. It also aims to increase the city’s urban tree canopy cover and construct more than 30 additional miles of bike paths.

Mayor Steinberg said all these policies, including banning new gas stations and drive-thrus, is “all about quality of life, in all of our communities but especially those that have been left behind for far too long.”

The goal, he said, is to keep residents out of their cars and walk, bike or take transit safely between grocery stores, work and home. By encouraging housing density and limiting sprawl development, he argued the city can help shorten commutes — and cut planet-warming carbon pollution by extension.

“The closer we plan for places to be where people work, people live and where people play, the less people will be in their cars,” Steinberg said. “That by definition includes the climate.”

As people around the world continue to burn more fossil fuels and global temperatures break concerning records, Sacramento can expect to see more extreme heat, drought, wildfires and flooding in the coming years and decades.

Sacramento is one of many local governments across California and the nation responding to the climate crisis with plans to cut carbon emissions that could collectively help curb atmospheric warming and protect residents against extreme weather events.

Local advocates welcomed the city’s new climate adaptation framework but criticized it for relying heavily on EV adoption, arguing it simply won’t achieve nearly enough emissions reductions quick enough.

2023 was the hottest on record, and scientists argue the window to redirect the planet’s dire warming trend is closing. That’s lending urgency to local activists who say more action and investment is needed to protect Sacramento residents against climate extremes.

Last year, a group of local climate advocacy organizations levied heavy criticism at the city’s efforts to tackle climate issues. A comprehensive report card compiled by Sacramento 350 gave the city a ‘D’ grade, arguing that the city has acted with little urgency on climate.

“We need better public transportation, walkable cities and bicycle friendly cities. We need infill development. We’ve been saying this for a long time,” said Katie McCammon, project director at Sacramento 350, who noted that the process for this plan began in 2019.

She lamented that this climate plan update was originally slated for completion in 2021 after the mayor’s commission on climate change released its recommendations in 2020. The most recent climate plan was issued in 2012.

“It’s not that there aren’t leaders that aren’t trying. They have a hard job,” she said. “But we’re in a position where we need to continue putting on the pressure, getting status updates from climate scientists and asking leaders for a livable future.”

What’s especially concerning to Anne Stausboll, former CalPERS chief investment officer and chair of the mayor’s commission on climate change, is a lack of funding to implement the city’s new climate plan.

Full implementation costs would amount to $3.2 billion, according to a consulting firm, but the City Council has only allocated $4.5 million so far. The consultant argued that the city will need a strategy to fund $664 million in key priorities, at the very least.

Public transit services, bike lane and pedestrian walkway construction, tree maintenance and building electric vehicle charging infrastructure were highlighted as the plan’s highest-cost actions.

“The disappointment to me is that they’ve done all this planning and knew how much it would cost,” Stausboll said. “It’s great to have an ambitious plan but you also have to have ambitious funding and financing so you can implement it.”

In response to requests for comment, city spokesperson Kelli Trapani said in an emailed statement that “Staff will continue to evaluate feasible opportunities and seek more resources... Measures not funded through external sources will need to be funded incrementally through the city’s annual budget process.”

The city’s general plan and climate plan officially go into effect on March 28.