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City of Petaluma – Land Use & Community Design Program to Address Climate Change

Case Story

Climate Action Connection: Land Use & Community Design

Petaluma’s planning and housing policies are key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Community: Petaluma (Sonoma County)

Population: 56,000


The Petaluma General Plan 2025 reflects planning goals across all its elements that are designed to mitigate future greenhouse gas emissions. Highlights include policies that encourage higher densities around a new regional rail system and in the central core, as well as greener buildings among existing and future development.

Program Highlights

  • Communitywide greenhouse gas inventory forms basis of general plan policies.
  • Central Petaluma Specific Plan promotes higher density in central district and around planned regional rail.
  • Urban growth boundary guides extension of infrastructure to serve areas within the boundary.
  • Petaluma’s residential growth management system limits new residential units to a maximum of 500 units per year.

Lessons Learned

  • It’s a challenge to quantify greenhouse gas reductions attributable to land use planning policies.
  • As land use planning based on greenhouse gas mitigation becomes more commonplace, more readily available resources will be available to help cities and counties with their planning efforts.

Resources to Learn More

The Rest of the Story…

Petaluma is a leader in California’s smart growth movement. In the 1970’s, the city adopted a pioneering policy of setting an annual cap on the number of housing units built at a maximum of 500 new homes per year. In 1998, residents approved an urban growth boundary through 2018. At the same time, downtown Petaluma has enjoyed a renaissance of renovation and development, guided by the Central Petaluma Specific Plan.

In late 2007, with its general plan update well underway, the city conducted a greenhouse gas inventory. As a result, newly revised general plan update instead focuses on goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. As it re-evaluated its draft general plan update, the city realized many of its existing policies contributed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, the city decided to go further by drawing a connection between general plan policies and their contribution toward greenhouse gas reduction.

General Plan Update Based on Climate Change Actions

Petaluma has adopted a greenhouse gas reduction goal of 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2015. It is one of the first cities to incorporate a baseline, community-wide greenhouse gas inventory into its general plan and to build general plan policies around greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Petaluma’s recently adopted general plan projects growth to the year 2025. Half of the general plan elements include policies and programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These include policies that promote infill, high density, mixed-use, and transit oriented development, limit new growth to within the urban growth boundary and preserve open space. For new growth proposed to occur outside the established core, the general plan calls for higher density residential development in adjoining urbanized areas and gradually lower densities as new development moves toward the urban growth boundary.

In addition, the Petaluma General Plan 2025 anticipates 6,000 new residential units at build-out by 2025 or later. Since 39 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings, to mitigate emissions from future growth, Petaluma is modifying its current voluntary green building program. The new program is proposed to be mandatory and apply to residential and commercial development.

Directing Growth to the Core

Petaluma is also planning for more intense growth in its urban core and intends to take advantage of a new regional rail line and station in order to provide higher density transit-oriented development with a broad mix of uses. It expects its Central Petaluma Specific Plan to have the single biggest impact on its greenhouse gas reduction goals.

A newly approved Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) rail line and station will be within walking distance to the city’s downtown. The area specific plan allows for 60 units to the acre, twice the density previously allowed for downtown. The 400 acres downtown is now primarily zoned for mixed use.

Petaluma has redeveloped six previously vacant and underutilized blocks immediately outside its downtown in an area known at the Theatre District. Named for the multi-screen movie complex, the district also includes high density office, retail and housing.

Compiled May 2009

This case story was prepared in partnership with the California Air Resources Board.

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