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Council candidates discuss building, growth

Published: Monday, October 1, 2012 at 9:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 27, 2012 at 3:04 p.m.
( Editor's note: This is the second in a series of stories about issues in the race for City Council. Information is based on responses to an Argus-Courier questionnaire and subsequent interviews with the candidates. ) From the Dutra Asphalt Plant to the Target and Friedman's shopping centers, growth and development-related matters have long been some of the most divisive political issues in Petaluma. Candidates have typically split along two lines — those who are more supportive of new development and large-format retail expansion, and those who oppose such development in favor of transit-oriented development, and this year's council race is no exception.

Friedman's and Target shopping centers

Issues of planning, transportation, and economic vitality factored large in candidates' responses to a question about whether or not they supported the city's approval of the Deer Creek Village, or Friedman's, and East Washington Place, or Target, shopping centers.

Vice Mayor Tiffany Renée, who voted against approving both projects, reiterated concerns about low-wage jobs and traffic impacts.

“It is important that if we are going to approve large-scale projects that we place a priority on quality, living wage jobs,” she said. “The lower the wages are in these commercial projects, the less the project tends to pay for itself over time.”

She spoke mainly of concerns about traffic impacts from both projects, noting, “The traffic for Target will put significant strain on our degraded roads. And the traffic mitigations to address congestion are in some cases a decade away from being built.”

Like others, she lamented the lawsuits that have followed development projects like the Target Center, saying that the way to avoid them is to approve “legally defensible projects.” “The reason I didn't approve (the Deer Creek shopping center) is because we didn't get quite there,” she said, referencing concerns such as traffic mitigation.

Business executive Jason Davies called the approval of the Target Shopping Center a difficult and complicated decision and gave a qualified "yes" when asked whether or not he approved of the council's decision on the matter. He added that he would have worked to make the Environmental Impact Report more defensible.

Davies also lamented the lawsuits, but said he was glad the project was moving forward and that he thought the process did eventually make for a better project for Petaluma.

Of the Friedman's project, Davies said that while he supports Friedman's returning to Petaluma, he would have preferred an “environmentally superior” alternative that included a skilled nursing facility. He also expressed concern about the “retail cannibalization” that could occur as a result of the new stores coming to town, saying, “I would work very proactively and utilize my experience in business development to help ensure we can minimize the impacts and reduce (how much other businesses are affected) as much as possible.”

Planning Commissioner Alicia Kae Herries actively opposed the Target shopping center, and while she says she supports Friedman's returning to Petaluma, voted against project approvals for the Deer Creek Village shopping center twice as a commissioner, expressing concern that it was not a “mixed use” development. “Our General plan calls for mixed-use development at both East Washington Place and Deer Creek Village,” she said. “I am a supporter of smart growth, with the knowledge that implementation of these principles allows our community the best of both worlds, retail and residential.” Herries pointed to Theatre Square as a good example of the kind of “smart growth” she wants to see, describing it as a “live-work” environment. “As long as we continue to develop auto-centric centers we're going to keep perpetuating traffic,” she said.

Candidates who voted for the projects or support them spoke of the need for additional tax revenues in Petaluma and a desire to stop residents from driving elsewhere to purchase basic goods and services.

City Councilmember Mike Healy voted in favor of both the Target and Friedman's centers. “People in town want them both here, and the city needs the sales tax revenues to support vital public services,” he said.

City Councilmember Gabe Kearney voted in favor of the Friedman's shopping center, noting, “Both of these shopping centers will bring in revenue to our city that is sorely needed. When we look at the gaps identified by our economic strategic plan, these developments help us to meet those needs.” He added, “It is important when we look at the construction and approval of projects similar to these, that we ensure that the impacts from the development are mitigated adequately.”

Former Planning Commissioner Kathy Miller said, “I am glad both developments were finally approved. They conform to the general plan, they seem to be supported by the vast majority of Petaluma's citizens and Petaluma needs the sales tax revenues these projects will generate. I am not happy with the opponents delaying the Deer Creek Village project to set-up a lawsuit to slow down or stop the project completely.”

Dutra Asphalt Plant

The proposed Dutra Asphalt Plant, which would be located across from Shollenberger Park just outside city limits, remains an important issue for many voters. The City Council, earlier this year, agreed to join local environmental and community groups in appealing a county judge's dismissal of their suit against the county Board of Supervisors to stop the plant from going forward. Dutra opponents say they want to be sure that councilmembers will continue to support the appeal process, while some community members have expressed concern that the appeal is costing the city money it can't afford to spend.

Healy, Kearney and Renée all voted to join the appeal this year. In addition, Healy, an attorney, said he recently wrote an Amicus brief to the appeal as a “pro bono effort” to help the appeal and a way to save the city some money.

Kearney said that he didn't think Dutra was “the right thing for our community.” He added, “I'll continue to support our city and I think we have grounds for that lawsuit and I don't think our voice and opinion was heard. It's worth spending city dollars to fight it along with the partners who are working with us to offset the costs.”

Renée has been a vocal opponent of the plant, drafting a letter of opposition that the City Council signed, among other things. Renée said she thought the issue would continue to be an important one for the council in the next few years. “It's important to continue to push forward with the appeal, make sure we have a sustained effort,” she said.

Davies has also been a vocal opponent of the plant, showing up to Board of Supervisor meetings to speak against it and participating in local groups that oppose it.

Herries says she is “not supportive of an asphalt plant” and could not see a time when she would be.

Miller said of the issue, “I don't want a plant across from Shollenberger. I run and bike there.” She added that she was comfortable with the current arrangement, where community groups have paid for some of the city's legal fees in fighting the plant, but that she would be concerned if the appeal cost more money than expected.

Mixed use/ general plan guidelines for housing, retail and commercial development

When asked if they support the general plan guidelines for housing, retail and commercial development, almost all the candidates said they want to revisit how mixed use, a designation that applies to much of Petaluma's future development, is defined in the general plan. Mixed use is a term that calls for or allows a development to host a variety of functions, from retail stores to office space to housing. Candidates differed on whether the definition should require certain elements, like residential, in Petaluma. The problem that many candidates pointed to is that the general plan calls for mixed-use development in many areas around town, but only defines the term very loosely. Some have criticized large-scale development projects, such as the Deer Creek Village project, for being inconsistent with the general plan because it is not mixed use, while others have countered that the project, a mix of retail and office space, does indeed fit the definition of the term.

“One area (of the general plan) that could have been handled better is the question of what constitutes “mixed use” development, especially as you move away from the downtown core. This is an area the city may need to revisit in the future,” said Healy. “The General plan is the shared vision of the community expressing what we would like to see happen in the future. It is an incredibly detailed and carefully prepared document. It is important that City Hall stand behind it so that businesses can reasonably expect that if they want to build something on their property consistent with the General Plan, that absent unusual circumstances, that will be allowed. That hasn't always been the case in the recent past,” he added.

Miller also spoke of the importance of adhering to the general plan, something she says she took seriously and helped craft as a planning commissioner. “It is Petaluma's guideline for development and should be adhered to so project proponents know what to expect,” she said, adding of mixed use, it “seems to be a catchall for development that doesn't fit into any other category. I think the mixed-use designation needs to be better defined.”

Kearney said that better defining mixed use would be an “opportunity for us to improve our current general plan.” He said that one of the city's current problems is that the Planning Commission and City Council have different definitions of what mixed use is.

Kearney added that he believes that mixed use works well in a dense downtown setting, but perhaps not as much in other areas of town.

Renée agreed that redefining mixed use should be a priority. She described mixed use as being “about reducing the overall footprint (of a project),” adding, “We're doing (Petaluma) a disservice by trying to define car-centric retail as mixed use.” Renée also criticized the general plan for not properly addressing how to reduce car travel and greenhouse gas emissions in Petaluma.

Davies said in his questionnaire, “I do think we could potentially codify mixed use definitions and requirements better, but it's also a challenge because not all levels of mixed use may be appropriate for a given site.”

Herries spoke of a strong desire to revisit mixed use, saying it's an issue that's come up repeatedly on the Planning Commission. She said she would like to see mixed use redefined to specifically include a residential requirement. “Right now, people look at mixed use as a myriad of retail uses,” she said. “We need to roll in that element of residential.” Herries expressed a broader desire to revisit other parts of the general plan as well, noting, “given the state's decision to remove redevelopment monies from Petaluma, and our substantial reliance on this funding, it is important that we revisit and realign our general plan to accommodate for previously unforeseen impacts to housing, retail and commercial development.”

Candidates were mainly in agreement on two other development-related issues: that of maintaining the Economic Development Director position held by Ingrid Alverde and opposing a casino on land south of Petaluma owned by the Dry Creek Rancheria band of Pomo Indians. Healy, Miller and Kearney specifically said they would oppose a casino at the site, while all six candidates said they would negotiate with the tribe to encourage other uses there.

To read candidates' complete responses to the Argus-Courier's questionnaire, visit www.petaluma360.com

(Contact Jamie Hansen at jamie.hansen@argus courier.com.)

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