Marin County’s ordinance that bans retailers in unincorporated areas from dispensing single-use bags has survived a challenge in appeals court and remains in effect.
On June 25, the California First District Court of Appeals issued an opinion in the case of the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition vs. County of Marin et al, a lawsuit that originated after the County passed an ordinance in January 2011. The ruling upheld the Marin Superior Court decision that said the use of an exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review process was appropriate.
“We are very happy that our ordinance will stay in force without having to go back and complete more CEQA review,” said David Zaltsman, a senior attorney with the County Counsel’s office.
The decision comes seven weeks after the Marin County Civil Grand Jury filed a report titled “Holding the Bag” that advocated for the adoption of ordinances throughout Marin to eliminate all single-use plastic carry-out bags and the extension of the ban as far as realistically possible to all commercial establishments regardless of size.
At oral argument on appeal, the plaintiff’s counsel contended that the County failed to follow its own guidelines for claiming a categorical exemption from CEQA. In its written opinion, the court stated, “Even if the county did not comply with certain aspects of its own guidelines for asserting a categorical exemption, the plaintiff has failed to explain how any such noncompliance with the county’s own guidelines constitutes a CEQA violation. CEQA does not require public agencies to follow any specific procedure in approving activities that are exempt.”
The ordinance, which went into effect in January 2012, was championed by the late Marin County Supervisor Charles McGlashan. His widow, Carol Misseldine, said many of Marin’s cities and towns have been waiting to hear the results of this court decision and could be inspired to adopt similar ordinances.
“This ruling is such great news,” Misseldine said. “Charles worked hard on that ordinance and made sure that there were plenty of chances for the grocers, the retailers, the environmental community and all other interested stakeholders to weigh in with their suggestions. … More than 70 other jurisdictions in the state have already taken this important step for the environment. Charles would be delighted.”
Maureen Parton, an aide to Supervisor Kathrin Sears, worked nearly six years with Supervisor McGlashan to recruit local cities and towns to join the County in the ban. She said the June 25 court ruling is the “green light” those municipalities needed because they were fearful of expensive lawsuits. About 40 retail stores in unincorporated areas of Marin County are affected by the ban, but it would apply to about 450 retailers if a similar ordinance were adopted by all incorporated towns and cities in Marin.
“A unified set of laws throughout Marin will bring this action to full flower,” Parton said. “It’s a significant victory for resource conservation and the joyful citizen movement that urged this action from local government in the first place.”
The County ordinance came to life after a series of meetings and reports that pinpointed plastic bags as a major issue in solid-waste disposal. In 2007, a task force reported that plastic bags have no recycling markets, take 500 years to decompose and pose a hazard to the environment. The Marin Bag Ban Working Group, comprised of representatives from local agencies, environmental organizations, retail stores and bag suppliers, met in 2009 and 2010 to craft a local ordinance.