News

Energy Commission chief irks enviros’ by backing housing plan

In a battle that may represent the changing face of environmental politics
in California, a major builder is using a ballot initiative and help from
the Schwarzenegger administration to push for a 2,450-home development they
say would extensively use solar power–against the objections of
environmentalists.

On Friday, Pardee Homes held a press conference in Livermore saying it would
include solar power in 100 percent of the homes it would build in the
proposed Livermore Trails development. Nowhere in the local November ballot
initiative, however, does it actually say that Pardee Homes would be
required to install solar technology.

Attending the news conference was Joe Desmond, chairman of the California
Energy Commission and an appointee of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“We are pleased to see major builders like Pardee Homes beginning to step
forward to incorporate solar systems as standard energy saving features in
their new communities,” Desmond said in a statement released by Pardee after
the news conference.

Desmond, who was appointed CEC chairman in May, is the state’s ranking
energy regulator. His presence angered at least one local environmentalist.
“Desmond has stuck his nose into this local issue,” said Bob Baltzer,
chairman of the Friends of Livermore Committee, which opposes the
initiative. “It darn sure doesn’t seem right to me.”

“The California Energy Commission is clearly an advocate for renewable
sources of power,” countered Bernie Rhinerson, a spokesman for Pardee. “If
there was a project like this anywhere in the state, they would support it.”

Desmond was traveling and could not respond to requests for comment.

Pardee is a major Schwarzenegger donor. The company has given $72,300 to
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California Recovery Team in 2004 and 2005,
along with another $22,300 to Schwarzenegger’s reelection campaign in March.
The company has given at least $1.15 million to Citizens for Livermore
Trails, a group created to lobby for the initiative.

City councilwoman Lorraine Dietrich, the sole strong project supporter on
the city council, said that anti-growth proponents in Livermore have forced
developers to go directly to voters with developments, as Pardee has done.
Pardee is throwing in numerous amenities for the community, she added, such
as a 750 acre open space preserve, a 130 acre sports parks, and prepared
sites for two schools. Dietrich added that Desmond did not specifically
endorse the initiative.

“He spoke about what a wonderful project this could be,” Dietrich said.
“People could draw their own implications.”

In the statement released after the press conference, Pardee said both
Desmond and Pacific Gas & Electric spokesman Bruce Bowen “applauded the 100%
solar project.”

But Bowen, director of public policy and environmental affairs, said he was
just there to tell people about solar power. PG&E has no official position
on the initiative or Livermore Trails, he said. He also said that he asked
Pardee officials what would ensure that they fulfilled their promise to put
solar panels in every home, but didn’t get a clear answer.

The 16-page initiative mentions solar power three times, but has no solar
requirements except that it be “supported.” But Rhinerson said that
Livermore will have plenty of opportunity to hold Pardee to its “100% solar”
promise.

“We’ve got to go through the city council with a specific plan and an
environmental impact study,” Rhinerson said. “To not live up to this public
commitment would be difficult, if not impossible.”

The company has also structured the “solar option” to be very attractive to
buyers, Rhinerson said. With a cost in the “$20,000 range,” the extra amount
on a buyer’s mortgage would be more than offset each month by energy
savings, he said.

Solar panels are far cheaper to build directly into homes than add later, he
said. Pardee bills itself as a leader in solar power, Rhinerson added,
citing the company’s Soleil development in San Diego.

The conflict highlights the growing complexity of environmental battles.
This past legislative session saw Schwarzenegger, a Republican governor,
championing SB 1, the Million Solar Roofs initiative. He was thwarted by
Democrats, who loaded the bill down with rules that all work be done by
union workers. However, others have argued that developers also played a
role behind the scenes because they were unhappy with some of the subsidies
the bill would have provided.

Environmentalists say the Pardee is using “green-washing” tactics to push
through a development that would destroy critical habitat and lead to
thousands of new cars on local roads. The initiative would extend the urban
limit line the Livermore voters passed in 2000 with Measure D. Baltzer said
the area to be built on includes protected vernal pools and includes at
least one endangered plant.

Meanwhile, Pardee has been “astroturfing” the campaign via Citizens for
Livermore Trails, according to David Reid, East Bay field representative for
the Greenbelt Alliance. Official records show that Pardee gave $1.15 million
to the group between Jan. 11 and June 23. A call to the number listed on
campaign documents for Citizens for Livermore Trails was answered by a
secretary who said, “Hello, Pardee Homes.”

Rhinerson countered that Pardee has been very upfront with the fact that
they provide “over 80 percent” of the funding for the group.

Meanwhile, opponents have only spent $90,000, said Baltzer, who added that
he thought Pardee was “trying to buy the damn thing.”

This same scenario is playing out across the country, Reid said. He pointed
out measures on other nearby communities, Measure P in Pittsburgh, Measure K
in Antioch and Measure L in Brentwood. In each case, he claimed, developers
were using bait and switch tactics to sell more sprawl.

“It’s not that we don’t like solar panels,” Reid said. “But that’s not what
this election is about.”


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