Dutra asphalt plant may open next year

This time next year, Dutra Materials' asphalt plant could be the first thing drivers see entering the southern gateway to Petaluma. Last Friday, the 1st District Court of Appeals unanimously denied the City of Petaluma's lawsuit that sought to block the company from setting up shop across the river from Shollenberger Park.

After a contentious, multi-year-long battle with the city, company spokeswoman Aimi Dutra is looking to mend fences before the plant opens early next year.

"I am hoping we can work together with the city to make this a good fit for the community, and I believe it can be a good fit," Dutra said on Tuesday.

Opponents of the plant, including nonprofit groups and the City of Petaluma, could still seek one "Hail Mary" pass at the state Supreme Court, but traditionally the higher court only hears cases in which the appellate judges issued a divided decision. City Attorney Eric Danly said Monday that he would need the input of the city council before he could say whether the city would take the case to the state Supreme Court, adding that the issue needs to be added to a council meeting agenda before any decision is made.

"It's a very unwelcome decision," Danly said of the court ruling. "Community-wide, there's been a lot of energy expended to fight this project, and the council has been very supportive of the community's desire to stop this."

To date, the city has accrued $80,000 in legal fees for the initial lawsuit in 2011, and $15,213 on the failed appeal.

"The appeal costs were offset by $10,251 in donations," said City Finance Director Bill Mushallo. Donations came from nonprofit groups such as Friends of Shollenberger and Moms for Clean Air, which aided in the effort to block the plant.

The San Rafael-based Dutra Materials has been eyeing the 38-acre Haystack Landing site on the banks of the Petaluma River for a decade. The company operated an asphalt plant at the quarry where Petaluma Boulevard South passes under Highway 101; and for several years it operated at a temporary site across the Petaluma River from the Sheraton Hotel.

"We were a local resource for more than two decades in Petaluma," Dutra said.

But neither of those plants were located directly across from the 165-acre wetlands that makes up Shollenberger Park. Dutra's plans by the river sparked extensive review from county officials who weighed everything from its potential impact on noise and the visual character of the land, to environmental issues such as air quality and species disruption. The property sits just outside Petaluma's city limits, in the county's jurisdiction, which Danly summed up as "tragic irony" that the city doesn't have control over its own gateway.

Like a game of table tennis, the county and Dutra Materials batted different aspects of the project back and forth for years, until they found common ground. Dutra agreed to scale back production by 25 percent, lower the height of its silos from 76 to 62 feet, and ditched plans to build an asphalt recycling center because it generated too much noise, among other concessions.

"There were quite a few modifications to make this project a good fit for the site," Dutra said.

In late 2010, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors gave the project their seal of approval, to the disappointment of many of Petaluma's politicians and public.

"Sup. Mike Kerns, our supervisor, retired soon after his vote to approve this asphalt factory. He should have protected Petaluma's healthy environment and tourist friendly image — he should have voted no," said Joan Cooper of Friends of Shollenberger. Kerns was replaced by Supervisor David Rabbitt, who has publically opposed the plant proposal.

The city's initial lawsuit asserted that the county didn't properly consider the health, environmental and design impact of the plant, claims Judge Rene Chouteau dismissed in his December 2011 ruling in the county's favor. On the appeal, Danly focused on the county's general plan, which states the land is designated for a "river dependent" industrial use. While Dutra said the plant has plans to haul materials by barge to cut down on truck traffic, the company got an exemption from the "river dependent" requirement for the first three years of operation, which Danly said violated the land use ordinance. The appellate court disagreed.

"What we have learned is that the courts and judges are not inclined to overturn the decisions of elected officials, however bad those decisions may be," Cooper said. "The buck stops with who is representing us up in Santa Rosa."

(Contact Emily Charrier at emily.charrier@arguscourier.com)