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City Hits Brakes on Plastic Bag Ban

With the county facing ongoing litigation over its plastic bag ban ordinance and the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition promising to sue local municipalities who follow the county’s lead, City Hall takes a wait-and-see approach.

Nearly a year after the Marin County Board of Supervisors at retail markets, and barely a month before that ban is supposed to go into effect, the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition remains a potent foe for environmental activists.

The organization’s founder and attorney Stephen Joseph said he “definitely” plans to appeal a Marin Superior Court ruling in September that threw out his attempt to block the ban. He has until Dec. 12 to file the appeal.

But while the county’s ban and the subsequent legal wrangling only apply to retail markets in unincorporated Marin – the in Strawberry but not Camino Alto, for instance – it’s also given pause to cities hoping to follow the county’s lead. At its meeting tonight at City Hall, the Mill Valley City Council is considering a mere statement “declaring single-use carryout bags a concern” as opposed to considering its own ban.

Two weeks ago, environmental activists urged the council to adopt a plastic bag ban, along with at least a 5-cent fee on paper bags, similar to the county's ordinance in focusing on grocers and drug stores. The ban is one of the pieces of a countywide Zero Waste initiative to divert 100 percent of its waste from the landfill by 2025.

In doing so, several residents asked the council not to wait until the coalition’s lawsuit against the county is resolved. Maureen Parton, aide to and the late Supervisor Charles McGlashan, who efforts , encouraged the council to move ahead with its own ordinance before January. She said retail markets in unincorporated Mill Valley would be at a disadvantage if nearby stores within city limits offered plastic bags and they did not. and the two in Mill Valley don’t offer carryout plastic bags, so the focus of a ban within city limits would be on the drug stores and Safeway at Camino Alto (None of the proposed bans focus on the plastic bags provided for produce and bulk items, however).

“I urge the council to move ahead with the ordinance so we can provide an even playing field for the grocers in the unincorporated,” Parton said. “Action is key as it will strengthen our retailers resolve because it will offer that level playing field they seek. It would be an effective way to show a strong unified front for the cities and county to move ahead together.”

But the specter of the legal case was on Mill Valley Mayor Ken Wachtel’s mind.

“Will the county pay our legal fees if we get sued?” he asked.

Joseph told Mill Valley Patch that he would indeed sue the city if it passed its own plastic bag ban. He pointed to his statement issued after Marin Superior Court Judge Lynn Duryee ruled in late September that the county’s ordinance did not require officials to prepare an environmental impact report, as Joseph had argued was required.

In vowing to take the case to the state Court of Appeal, Joseph said Duryee’s decision “flies in the face" of a California Supreme Court ruling in similar case in Manhattan Beach case in which the court ruled that all plastic bag bans are not exempt from environmental law and an EIR is required for cities and counties larger than Manhattan Beach (population 35,000) or where there are cumulative impacts as a result of a series of bans. Despite Mill Valley’s population falling below that figure, its ban would contribute to that “cumulative impact” element, Joseph said.

Although it won’t be weighing a bag ban tonight, the council may choose to speak about the issue. Its discussion at its Nov. 7 meeting proved lively at times.

“It’s time to get on with it,” said councilmember Stephanie Moulton-Peters. “We’ve been talking about it for a long time. This is health and safety – it’s the proper role of government.”

Wachtel wasn’t sold, saying that while he would likely vote in favor of a ban, he didn’t believe it was necessary to pass one.

“If people truly believed that we shouldn’t have plastic bags, they can do that now by not using them,” he said.

“You have to pass rules to help people do the right thing,” Moulton-Peters responded.

“It’s just a bad, lazy habit,” councilmember Shawn Marshall added.

Cathy Rosekrans November 21, 2011 at 05:38 PM
I would love a bag ban/charge ordinance, and the City has not ruled that out. Tonight the City Council is considering a resolution declaring their commitment to consideration of a bag ban/charge and declaring December 17th a Bring Your Own Bag Day. If passed, THAT DATE needs to be publicized. I know many are anxious (self included) to see a mandatory ban/charge, and I have confidence that we will. Your article points out the legal challenges - I have confidence that they will be resolved in a way that allows us to move forward to address the environmental menace of single use shopping bags.
leslie reiber November 21, 2011 at 09:54 PM
"You have to pass rules to help people do the right thing" Really?? Isn't that the same logic behind behind the Religious Right's push for anti-choice laws? Oh, but this is "just a bad, lazy habit", a smaller moral failing. I think of myself as progressive, but the sanctimony of these sentiments irritates even me enough to comment here. So just imagine how they sound to Tea Party ears. Ever wonder why they accuse the left of sneering and social engineering? I suppose a plastic bag ban would be all well and good. But let's keep some perspective, work from logic, and save the moral attitude for church.
Lippy November 22, 2011 at 12:59 AM
I'm disgusted that the City Council all feel that banning the bags is the correct thing to do but the fear of an impending lawsuit is being used as their escape hatch from actually having to take a stand and do what they have already admitted is the proper thing. The Council has insurance on their building to cover any impending lawsuit from personal injury, so get some "bag insurance" and get on with doing the right thing. Take a look in the eyes of the kids in this community after doing nothing, then try to explain what you allowed to happen to their world under your watch.
annika miller November 22, 2011 at 04:04 AM
I'm with Lippy - thank you Stephanie for saying it is time to get on with it. If you all want to see the sad state of where we are as consumers re: the plastic bag and other disposable goods please google Chris Jordan and his running numbers art exhibit. For those of you who get irritated with sanctimonious sentiments, Mr. Jordan's photographs should help you better understand why both Ms. Peters and Ms. Marshall are right in saying that we do need to help people correct our "very lazy and selfish habits".

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