Safeway: Proposed gas station ban not legal

After public outcry over a proposed Safeway gas station led the Petaluma City Council to suggest a 45-day emergency moratorium on processing gas station applications, Safeway officials broke their silence this week, calling the ban illegal and unnecessary.

"We were surprised to learn … that the city is considering a ban on new gas stations that will deny our customers a voice," Safeway's manager of public and government affairs for northern California Wendy Gutshall said in a statement Tuesday. "We worked with city staff throughout our application process and are disappointed to find out the ban is directly aimed at our project."

The proposed eight-bay, 16-pump fueling station includes a separate convenience store and enough space to allow a minimum of 12 vehicles to wait for an available pump, Gutshall said. If approved, the Safeway station in the Washington Square shopping center would be one of the largest in Petaluma.

Word of Safeway's proposal became public in August, when local gas station owners voiced concern at a city council meeting that Safeway's practice of selling gas at especially low prices could drive them out of business. Later, neighbors worried that the traffic and added congestion would negatively impact the area.

After the city approved a new Maria Drive apartment complex nearby and an expansion of the Addison Ranch apartment complex, residents complained that the addition of a gas station near the South McDowell Boulevard at East Washington Street intersection would make traffic congestion unbearable.

The complaints caused Petaluma City Councilmember Mike Healy to ask the council to consider a 45-day emergency ban on processing gas stations. While the council has yet to take action on the matter, all seven members expressed an interest on discussing it at the March 3 city council meeting.

City Attorney Eric Danly recently said that the council has the right to place an emergency moratorium on processing applications, if it is considering a change in the development approval process.

Though the moratorium could be perceived as directly aimed at blocking Safeway's application, Danly said the city council would be reconsidering how it handles all future gas station applications on the basis of health and safety concerns for the community.

But Gutshall disagreed. "Safeway is hopeful that the city council will see that it is neither legally right or necessary to adopt a moratorium and that we are not faced with such a scenario," she said.

Gutshall said that Safeway has opened 45 gas stations in northern California, without driving the competition out of business.

"We find that increased competition requires all gas retailers to sharpen their pricing and develop unique niches to serve customers," she said.

As for additional traffic, Gutshall said that a comprehensive traffic study conducted by an independent firm found that the project will not result in any significant traffic impacts to nearby intersections.

Gutshall added that the traffic study, which was given to city staff in January, also found that the new gas station would not create backups in the shopping center.

But Safeway's traffic impact study was finished before the city approved more than 200 additional apartment units on nearby Maria Drive.

Healy said Tuesday that the council will need to explore many aspects of gas stations when the issue comes before the council on March 3.