Category Archives: Local land use authority


By Roger Straw, September 21, 2016

We did it! Opponents of Valero’s oil train proposal gathered in City Hall on the night of Benicia’s historic vote to STOP crude by rail. September 20, 2016. Photo by Emily Jovais

Surprise unanimous vote – no to oil trains

Valero’s dirty and dangerous proposal to bring in Bakken and Tar Sands crude oil on trains from North Dakota and Canada is dead.

Opponents of the proposal worried and wondered for months whether a 3rd swing vote could be found on Benicia’s 5-member City Council.  On Tuesday night, the wondering came to a sudden fairy tale conclusion: a unanimous vote to deny the land use permit and stop the project dead in its “tracks.”

Benicia City Council, September 20, 2016. Photo by Constance Beutel.

Benicia’s City Council vote follows a February unanimous vote of its Planning Commission vote to deny the project.  Valero appealed the February decision to the Council, then received a six month delay to request backing from the federal Department of Transportation’s Surface Transportation Board (STB).

On Tuesday night, following a motion to deny by Council member Tom Campbell and seconded by Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, Council members Christina Strawbridge, Alan Schwartzman and Mark Hughes all expressed mounting concerns about on-site health, safety and environmental concerns.  City staff was directed to revise it’s resolution to deny the project, and to return for a final vote on October 4. [NOTE: A revised version of the resolution was presented at yesterday’s Council meeting, taking into account yesterday’s STB decision.  The revised version is not yet available in digital format on the City’s website.]


Earlier on Tuesday, the Surface Transportation Board issued a statement denying Valero’s petition for a declaratory order. On  May 31, Valero submitted a petition asking the STB to rule that the Benicia Planning Commission’s unanimous February 11 decision denying Valero’s oil train proposal is preempted by federal law. Yesterday, the STB denied Valero’s petition for declaratory order.

“The Board finds here that there is no preemption because the Planning Commission’s decision does not attempt to regulate transportation by a “rail carrier.” The Board’s jurisdiction extends to rail-related activities that take place at transloading (or, as here, off-loading) facilities if the activities are performed by a rail carrier, the rail carrier holds out its own service through a third party that acts as the rail carrier’s agent, or the rail carrier exerts control over the third party’s operations.8 The record presented to the Board in this case, however, does not demonstrate that Valero is a rail carrier or that it is performing transportation-related activities on behalf of UP or any other rail carrier at its off-loading facility.”

Citing arguably similar case law, the STB repeatedly points out that Valero is not a “rail carrier” and that Valero would not be “performing offloading under the auspices of a rail carrier.”

Further, the STB rules that “Valero has not demonstrated that the Planning Commission’s decisions unreasonably interfere with UP’s common carrier operations.”  Under federal law, “accordingly, this situation…does not reflect undue interference with ‘transportation by rail carriers’ within the Board’s jurisdiction.”

The STB ruling also provided guidance on the issue of preemption as it applies to any mitigations and conditions of approval that directly impact rail operations.  The ruling strongly restated federal preemptory powers on any mitigation measures or conditions of approval that would “regulate Union Pacific’s rail operations on its lines.”  But it went on to say, “State and local regulation is permissible where it does not unreasonably interfere with rail transportation….Localities retain their reserved police powers to protect the public health and safety so long as their actions do not discriminate against rail carriers or unreasonably burden interstate commerce. For example, local electrical, plumbing, and fire codes are generally applicable.”

The STB’s guidance continues, “State and local action, however, must not have the effect of foreclosing or unduly restricting the rail carrier’s ability to conduct its operations or otherwise unreasonably burden interstate commerce.”  And finally, “If the offloading facility were eventually to be constructed but the EIR or the land use permit, or both, included mitigation conditions unreasonably interfering with UP’s future operations to the facility, any attempt to enforce such mitigation measures would be preempted…”

The exact definition or meaning of “foreclosing or unduly restricting” and “unreasonably interfering with” was not spelled out in yesterday’s STB ruling.

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City staff again recommends approval of Valero Crude By Rail – Council can vote on Tues, Sept 20

By Roger Straw, September 15, 2016

New staff report again recommends overturning Planning Commission’s unanimous decision

oil tank carsOn Thursday, City of Benicia staff released the agenda for the crucial and perhaps decisive September 20 meeting of the Benicia City Council.

A staff report accompanying the agenda stands by the staff’s previous positions on Valero’s oil train proposal, recommending on p. 10 that Council approve Valero’s appeal, reject Benicia’s Planning Commission decision, and approve the Crude By Rail project.

The staff report fails to quote the City’s own strong defense of local land use authority as stated in its recent legal brief before the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB), and attaches the brief seemingly as an afterthought, the 10th among 10 attachments.

Although City staff follows protocol, offering Council four alternative courses of action including approval, denial, re-working the environmental report and continuing discussion – it’s recommendation is unenlightened, a repeat of previously heard pro-oil-train postures of Valero and the City’s paid consultants.

The one indication that staff is giving Council real alternatives is that they include a ready draft of a resolution to deny the project, a professional courtesy not afforded to Benicia’s Planning Commission last February.

That said, eight of the ten attachments that accompany the staff report  lean heavily in favor of Valero and against opponents. A new memo by Valero Benicia executive Don Cuffel disputes the findings of environmental expert Dr. Phyllis Fox. In the memo, Cuffel touts his own experience and authority, then launches into a 6-page attack on Dr. Fox, characterizing her arguments as based on “ideology or on heated rhetoric.”

The City’s release of Cuffel’s September 13 memo at this late date will no doubt make it difficult if not impossible for Dr. Fox to rebut and defend herself and her positions prior to the September 20 meeting of Council.

The agenda also attaches a second September 13 memo commissioned by Valero that claims Benicia’s Sulphur Springs Creek is perfectly safe from potential environmental impacts, and that the “proposed project meets the requirements and intent of the City of Benicia’s stream setback ordinance.”

It is interesting that public comment on the proposal has officially been closed, and yet Valero’s latest memos are attached to the official Council agenda.  Would the City have given such prominence to an afterword by Dr. Fox?  Did staff choose to attach the recent critiques of Benicia structural engineer Amir Firouz or Benicia engineer C. Bart Sullivan, who have pointed out on-site impacts that have nothing to do with rail-related dangers?  Of course not.  When does manufactured rebuttal by the project applicant come to a close here?

Valero plays hard ball, of course, and has done so throughout the more than three years of procedings.  One can only guess at the behind-the-scenes pressure applied by Valero to City staff and supposedly impartial City consultants.  Who knows why our City Manager, Assistant City Manager and Principal Planner have chosen to leave our employ in recent weeks?

Opponents of the project have been waiting and watching for signals from Benicia’s new interim City Manager Steve Salomon. It is disappointing, if not alarming, to witness staff’s new (old) approach on Valero’s dirty and dangerous proposal. The lone holdovers on senior staff are City Attorney Heather McLaughlin and Community Develolpment Director Christina Ratcliffe. These two will be responsible, along with Council members, if Valero gets its way.

One can only hope that City Council members have taken note of the recent derailment disaster in Mosier, Oregon, the consistent input of outside experts, local structural engineers, California’s Attorney General and outside attorneys, and make a decision – finally on September 20 – to be done with Valero’s foolish proposal.

There is ample evidence of off-site and on-site factors that are sufficient for denial of this project. An entirely inadequate environmental review should not be certified, and a permit should not be granted.

(For a full listing of links to the staff report and attachments, see Benicia City Council: Sept. 20 agenda & attachments.)



Please attend the Tuesday, September 20 City Council meeting. Arrive early if you want a seat – some  will arrive as early as 5pm for this 7pm meeting! City Hall, 250 East L Street, Benicia.

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Benicia Mayor outlines possible outcomes for City Council on Sept 20

Repost of an E-Alert by Benicia Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, September 18, 2016
[Editor: I would expect considerable discussion on Tuesday to center on whether to continue waiting for a Surface Transportation Board response to Valero’s end run around local permitting authority. Valero has been openly urging Council to continue to delay making a decision.  City staff and the Mayor are certainly expecting a motion to delay; 3 of the 4 possible scenarios outlined below center on continuation. (Don’t miss the quote from Christopher Hart, chairperson of the National Transportation Safety Board, and Mayor Patterson’s question, at the bottom of this E-Alert.)  – RS]

Benicia, California


The Tuesday Council meeting’s main item is the decision on Valero Crude by Rail EIR and Land Use Permit. The complete packet is online here.

The following are potential scenarios for action:

  1. Valero could submit a formal written request for continuation of the appeal in order for the Federal Surface Transportation Board to render a decision on federal preemption of local land use authority. This request would be considered under the Open Government Ordinance as “new and substantial information” and the Council would decide whether or not this request is new and substantial. If the council votes in the majority, the consideration for delay for STB decision would be on the next agenda. The council would then have to decide whether to proceed or not with the action on the current agenda which is the appeal of the Planning Commission denial of the project. Staff is recommending approving the appeal.
  2. No request in writing for continuation but during the council consideration of the Valero appeal, Valero could request a “point of order” and ask for council consideration of continuing the delay. Council again would have to act on the point of order before proceeding to the agenda item. There could be the same outcome as in #1.
  3. No request for continuation by Valero and consideration of the appeal of the denial by the Planning Commission. A councilmember could request a continuation but council cannot continue the item without Valero’s consent – so a council member could ask for a continuation and if Valero agrees the consideration of continuation would have to be at the next meeting. See #1 for steps.
  4. No request for continuation by anyone. The council will hear staff report – there is no public comment on this item unless there is demonstrably new and substantial information (see above for steps by council for consideration). So the decision can be as follows:
    1. motion and second to deny appeal and thus let stand Planning Commission denial of the land use permit with or without prejudice (with means a new application of the same project must wait one year; without means no such restriction. A modified project would be considered a new application).
    2. motion and second to consider certification of Final Environmental Impact Report followed by a motion to deny appeal.
    3. motion to certify the FEIR and grant the appeal and approve the land use permit.

“We’ve been lucky thus far that derailments involving flammable liquids in America have not yet occurred in a populated area,” Hart [current head of the National Transportation Safety Board] said. “But an American version of Lac-Mégantic could happen at any time. Instead of happening out in the middle of a wheat field it could happen in the middle of a big city.”
The Bakken oil train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada, killed 47 people. As these safety issues are ignored, dismissed, or continued to be studied, an important question remains: How long until that luck runs out?
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