Palo Alto will have to conduct a lengthy environmental analysis should it choose to expand its campaign against plastic bags, according to a settlement the city reached this week with a regional coalition opposing the ban.
The settlement ends three months of negotiations between Palo Alto and the group SaveThePlasticBag.com.
The group, a San Francisco-based coalition of businesses and individuals, has maintained that Palo Alto's recent ordinance prohibiting plastic check-out bags at supermarkets is illegal because the city failed to prepare an environmental impact report before adopting the ban in March.
The group formally filed its lawsuit against the city in April.
Under the settlement, the city will be able to maintain its ban. But any expansion of its scope would have to be accompanied by a complete environmental review.
The city's current ban applies to seven supermarkets, three of which had voluntarily stopped using plastic bags before the ban was adopted. Only Safeway, JJ&F Food Store, Andronico's and Mollie Stone's were required to stop using plastic check-out bags.
Stephen Joseph, the attorney representing SaveThePlasticBag.com, said the group is pleased with the settlement because it ensures that the city's ban on bags will not expand without a full review.
The City Council and staff have consistently indicated that they would like to ban plastic check-out bags from local pharmacies and other stores. The settlement essentially guarantees that the city's quest to expand its bag ban will take longer than officials had hoped.
"It's not worth fighting for two years over four stores," Joseph told the Palo Alto Weekly. "The important thing is that we've stopped the ban on all other stores, pending an environmental impact report."
Don Larkin, Palo Alto assistant city attorney, said the settlement will not impede the city from expanding the scope of its ban on plastic bags.
"It's a good settlement. It'll still enable the City Council to reach all its goals; it'll just take a little longer," Larkin said.
Before enacting the ban in March, the city conducted considerable research on the ordinance's potential environmental impact, he said. Conducting a full environmental review in the future would take months, not years, he said.
In addition, other cities and agencies in the state are looking at similar bag bans, Larkin said. The city could join other municipalities in conducting legal and environmental research, making it more cost effective in compiling an environmental-impact report.
■ Online copy of the settlement (PDF)