Valley air district board members didn't like the smell of it, but they held their noses, complained they had little choice, and voted unanimously Thursday to hand off a $29 million federal air pollution penalty to valley vehicle owners.

The decision was probably a forgone conclusion, but the board spent more than three hours listening to staff's recommendations, a slew of public comments -- pro and con -- and one another before deciding to tack an additional $12 onto the annual cost of registering a motor vehicle in the valley.

The eight-county air district, which extends from Bakersfield to Stockton, already includes a $7 surcharge on DMV auto registrations for various programs. But the additional fee marks the first time American motorists have been held responsible for fouling the air.

The South Coast Air Basin is considering a similar surcharge, according to the Fresno Bee.

"As a matter of principle I oppose fees and penalties because they're another form of tax," said Kern County Supervisor Ray Watson, who also serves on the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District board.

But Watson and his fellow members agreed that the alternative -- assessing the valley's largest stationary polluters, such as oil refineries, power plants and agricultural-production facilities -- would be both unfair and unwise.

"I don't think we have a choice," he said. "I think we need to adopt the surcharge."

The new fees will be added to vehicle registration starting in October 2011. The surcharge will end in 2024, but the air board may decide to end it at any time.

The federal penalty is particularly galling to board members and Air District staff because the valley's air this summer was the cleanest on record, according to the district.

But in mid-August when temperatures climbed past 110 degrees and back-to-school driving put more cars on the road, the air district recorded seven violations of the one-hour ozone standard -- a federal Clean Air Act rule that measures the peak level of smog-producing ozone during any one-hour period.

That's seven too many violations of the standard, but a huge improvement over 56 recorded in 1996, said Samir Sheikh, the air district's director of strategies and incentives.

Emission reductions made by valley businesses are largely responsible for the valley's improved air, Sheikh said at the Fresno meeting. As a result, there's not much more industry can do with current technology.

"Valley businesses," he said, "deserve our recognition and reward, not a penalty."

But some members of the public disagreed.

Tom Frantz, a Shafter teacher and environmental activist who heads the Association of Irritated Residents, labeled as "propaganda" the air district's assertion that 80 percent of the valley's smog comes from mobile sources.

He and others said the district should stick to the spirit of the law, which was designed to hold industrial sources of air pollution accountable.

Frantz also said the stockholders of oil companies and other multi-national corporations can much more easily absorb the federal penalty than the people of the southern valley, many of whom live below the poverty level.

The air district has no regulatory jurisdiction over cars and other mobile sources, but Sheikh noted that stationary sources of smog-forming gasses have cut their emissions between 75 percent and 88 percent since 1980. In addition, the number of miles driven by motorists has grown twice as fast as the population, he said, another reason drivers should share the burden.

Arthur Unger, a member of the executive committee of the Kern-Kaweah chapter of the Sierra Club, also pleaded with the board to hold industry accountable for the federal penalty.

"Private vehicle drivers have little control over their emissions," he said.

But other members of the public -- who had video access to the Fresno meeting at air district offices in Bakersfield and Modesto -- lobbied hard for motorists to pick up the tab.

Suzanne Noble, vice president of regional issues and chief of staff for the Western States Petroleum Association, supported the staff recommendation -- as did business owners in Fresno and other areas in the district.

"We have close to 500 vehicles," said Patrick Smith of beef producer Harris Ranch. "So business will pay under this provision as well."

Not only does Smith support the DMV surcharge, he said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should be held responsible for failing to get a handle on the valley's worst polluters, trucks and cars.